Telemental Health in VA: A New Source of Support for Veterans

By Robert A. Petzel, MD, Under Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Robert A. Petzel, MD

Last year, VA provided outstanding care to six million Veterans. In the next five years — as America turns the page on a decade of war — we expect that more than 1 million active-duty personnel will join the ranks of America’s 22 million veterans.

It’s imperative we ensure that America’s veterans, including our newest veterans returning home from missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, have access to the high quality healthcare they’ve earned and deserve.

This includes mental healthcare that is second to none.

Telehealth: The Future is Now

VA is leading the way in making mental-health services convenient and accessible to the veterans we serve through telehealth technologies. Telemental health provides a full range of mental-health services that veterans can receive when they need it. Telehealth also offers another advantage: It does not have the perceived stigma sometimes associated with mental-health services.

VA is trying to reach about 825,000 veterans through telehealth and mobile health by the end of 2013 — up from 460,000 in 2012. This goal includes delivering at least 300,000 telemental-health visits.

VA routinely provides telemental-health services at remote sites such as our community-based outpatient clinics and vet centers. We also are integrating telemental health into our primary-care services via Patient Aligned Care Teams, or PACT. These teams are able to access mental-health specialists locally, regionally and nationally. And, as we look into the immediate future, veterans will begin to access a range of mental-healthcare services from their homes.

In the past decade, VHA has widely adopted telemental health and is recognized as a national leader in the delivery of telemental-health services. We’ve provided over 650,000 telemental-health visits for veterans during the past 10 years. Last year alone, more than 80,000 veterans benefited from more 200,000 telemental-health visits.

Bear in mind that in healthcare we use the word “visit” as a euphemism for getting care. In reality, a telemental-health visit can be an American Indian veteran not having to travel hundreds of miles across snowy plains in the winter, or a veteran in rural Maine avoiding an eight-hour journey to receive care. Last year, VA provided telehealth services to nearly a half- million veterans through more than 1.4 million telehealth-based episodes of care in 150 VA medical centers and 750 community-based outpatient clinics. Thirty percent of these clinics were in rural areas.

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