Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, access to care, specifically telehealth care, was increasingly important. However, the lack of broadband internet access or internet-connected devices, especially in rural areas of the country, created a significant barrier for Veterans looking to access these services, an official from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said during an FCW virtual event on Dec. 1.

According to Leonie Heyworth, the director of Synchronous Telehealth for the Office of Connected Care at the VA, the department has implemented initiatives to increase Veterans’ access to telehealth services and the technology or infrastructure to access these services.

“We want to bring digital technology to Veterans making sure that our Veterans can connect with their healthcare professionals [to] extend beyond the brick and mortar walls of VA facilities and into their homes. Giving Veterans a choice as to where they want to receive their VA care,” Heyworth said.

During the pandemic, the agency moved mountains to expand its telehealth capacity quickly. The VA conducted about 2,500 telehealth video sessions daily at the start of the pandemic. And by that summer, it had conducted nearly 25,000 sessions. The department also boosted bandwidth for concurrent video sessions. It delivered more than two million episodes of telehealth care in fiscal year (FY) 2019. And by FY2020, it gave more than nine million telehealth episodes, including about two million virtual mental health appointments.

Now, according to Heyworth, the department is working to pair its recent advances in telehealth capacities with aid programs to bridge the digital divide in rural areas and help veterans who might not be able to afford new technology personally.

“Last year, we implemented what we call the Digital Divide Consults. It is a process that connects Veterans with a device or connectivity by way of a social worker to facilitate the process,” Heyworth said.

The program ensures qualified veterans who don’t have internet access or a video-capable device receive the technology to access remote care, she added.

Through the Digital Divide Consults, social workers can see if Veterans qualify for one of the department’s internet-connected devices. That device is sent to a Veteran to take advantage of VA telehealth services.

“We’ve distributed more than 84,000 of those iPads since the beginning of the pandemic,” Hayworth said.

Moving forward, Hayworth added, the department is looking to pair its telehealth development strategy with ensuring Veterans living in remote areas can benefit from newly available resources.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.