WASHINGTON — In coming months, when veterans are trying to decide whether to go to a Veterans Affairs hospital or a private doctor for their check-up, they may opt for a trip to Walmart instead.
Department officials on Thursday announced a series of new telehealth partnerships designed to dramatically expand their current remote care offerings, to include online exam rooms in Walmarts, American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign War hangouts centered in rural areas across the country.
At the same time, officials from T-Mobile announced they’ll make use of VA’s video health apps free of charge for mobile customers around the country, potentially eliminating a cost barrier to veterans who want to access the department’s telemedicine offerings.
“This totally changes the VA’s footprint for delivering care,” said Deborah Scher, executive adviser to the secretary for strategic partnerships at VA. “It changes (veterans’) ability to access care in a way that can better their lives.”
The announcements came at a telehealth conference here which brought together top veterans policy leaders, technology experts and medical officials to brainstorm ways for the VA to more aggressively pursue remote care initiatives in coming years.
More than 725,000 veterans took part in some type of remote care appointment in fiscal 2018, either in VA facilities or their own homes. Of that group, 45 percent were located in rural areas where travel to a VA hospital can total more than 100 miles round trip.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said while those figures point to success with the effort so far, his administration needs to push the idea even further.
“Virtual care is the future of medicine,” he told the conference crowd. “It is our most powerful emerging tool. Ultimately it will improve and ease access for millions of Americans.”
The partnership with Walmart will be a pilot program to put telemedicine stations specifically for veteran customers at stores in rural areas (exact locations have yet to be announced.)
Patients will be able to check in to a private room and video conference with VA medical specials across the country, covering both basic checkups and specialty appointments like dermatology consults or mental health care support.
“Ninety percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart,” Scher said. “Ninety percent of veterans don’t live within 10 miles of a VA medical center.”
The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars sites will be similar. Philips Healthcare has agreed to supply its telemedicine technology to at least 10 sites that are in similarly remote areas. The first one has already been set up Eureka, Montana, in a VFW post 100 miles from the closest VA hospital.
“We can get this set up within a couple of days,” said Joe Robinson, senior vice president for Philips’ North America Health Systems. “And they can do a heck of a lot with these set-ups. The connection is fast. The camera resolution is high enough to make some diagnoses.”
Robinson added that placing the mobile medicine sites within the veterans groups’ posts brings another level of familiarity and comfort to many veterans who may not understand all of the new technology.
VA officials have not laid out a timeline for when the pilot programs may expand to more locations. Mike Katz, executive vice president of T-Mobile for business, said the free access to VA telehealth will begin immediately, but officials will work in coming months to make veteran customers aware of the new benefit.
He’s hopeful that other wireless carriers will follow suit, to expand the availability of the services and to help broaden awareness of veterans’ health options.
“The need for this is extraordinarily high,” he said. “The demand is extraordinarily high. So hopefully these changes whittle away at the friction in the way of veterans using these services.”