The Successful Expansion of Telehealth at the VA

The COVID-19 global pandemic has put a strain on every part of our daily lives.  So, it should not be a surprise that our healthcare system has had to adapt.  At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the pandemic has required some fundamental adjustments to how healthcare is given.

In the early days of the pandemic, the VA had to cancel or postpone most in-person medical appointments. Of course, the VA could not stop caring for our nation’s ailing military veterans.  As the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States, the VA had to make changes to how their employees worked to meet veterans where they were – at home!  Fortunately, the agency was able to rapidly move mountains due to its investment in the telehealth arena. 

The numbers tell the story:

Between March 2020 and June 2020, the VA successfully increased from 2,500 telehealth video sessions daily to nearly 25,000 sessions daily – a 1000% increase.  Last year, the VA delivered over two million episodes of telehealth care. After the pandemic the VA was able to boost their bandwidth for concurrent video sessions, delivering more than 9,000,000 telehealth episodes.

The VA’s successes were directly related to their original investment. When the pandemic began, nearly two-thirds of VA primary care and mental health providers had already used VA Video Connect, their main virtual conferencing platform (via computer or phone app). Initially, the help desk was overloaded by calls, but they were gradually able to convert the canceled and postponed appointments into telehealth sessions.  The VA made good use of the infusion of $2 billion in Coronavirus Aid Supplemental Funding, allocating this to video conferencing enhancements and other infrastructure improvements.  The VA set out to purchase an additional 200,000 laptops for its workforce and telehealth users. 

In the following, The VA lays out its phased approach to providing care through the pandemic

The VA and Congress seem to agree - telehealth is here to stay.  The next challenge for the VA is determining how to balance telehealth with traditional, in-person care.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, the VA will lean on telehealth as medical facilities begin to slowly begin to offer more in-person medical services.  For the long term, the VA advises it will “sustain and grow” its telehealth capabilities but does not yet have a solid target for how many users can and should receive care in this manner.

James Tongate, BeneLynk Vice President of Government Relations