Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairs of the Senate and House committees on Veterans’ Affairs, respectively, both predicted this week that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect on veterans’ access to telehealth services.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – home to the nation’s largest healthcare system – has seen the rapid expansion of its telehealth services during the pandemic. The VA averaged 45,000 telehealth visits a day in February, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said earlier this month, up from an average of 2,500 visits a day in March 2020.

“[The use of] telehealth at the VA … has just shot up tremendously and VA had to rely on it quite a bit, [and] quite a bit is kind of an understatement,” Rep. Takano said March 18 at an event organized by GovernmentCIO. “And I expect that the VA will continue to use telehealth with veterans, and I see this trend happening with other federally supported health care programs as well.”

With the expansion of the availability of telehealth services, there are still barriers to overcome in their implementation, including the expansion of connectivity.

“You know the challenge has always been connectivity,” Sen. Tester said at the same event. “But the truth is if you can get connectivity – what we have seen in telehealth [is] it’s nice to be there eyeball-to-eyeball, but when you can’t do it – telehealth can help you get the health care that a veteran needs and I think that’s going to continue. And I think that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

In addition, as Rep. Takano would go on to note, while telehealth will continue to be a useful tool for VA in the future, it is important to increase veterans’ access to physicians as well.

“Look, telehealth is not a substitute for getting physicians and specialists into places like Montana, where … Chairman Tester represents, and states like Kansas, that [ranking VA committee member] Senator [Jerry] Moran represents,” Rep. Takano said. “I really hope to work, with the Senate to look at ways to deal with … the estimated 55,000 practitioners, doctors, and specialists that we need to train going forward.”

“There’s only so much telehealth can do. So, telehealth has been a tremendous improvement, but it’s no substitute for adequately staffing the VA, the VA medical system, and the medical system of the nation as a whole,” Rep. Takano added.

Beyond an increased look at what telehealth can provide, Sen. Tester also recently introduced a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would increase Congressional oversight of the VA’s IT projects.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.