Not Enough?

Critics of the program have said the subsidy is not nearly enough to cover monthly costs of internet, especially when it comes to high-data usage like videoconferencing. 

Another stopgap that VA officials hope will reach some of these veterans is its Atlas program. Last year, VA opened stand-alone telehealth hubs at select VFWs and Walmart stores in remote areas. The program was just starting to get off the ground when the pandemic led to the temporary closure of the hubs. As of the hearing, one hub at a VFW post in Eureka, MT, had reopened and the Walmart sites were expected to reopen by the end of August.

Some legislators are hoping to add to this piecemeal solution with the HOTSPOTS Act. The bill would create a two-year, $160 million pilot program that would purchase and distribute internet-connected devices to libraries in low-income and rural areas. People living within range could use those devices as hotspots, giving them access to broadband internet. 

“Hopefully we’ll get this into the next COVID relief package,” declared Sen. Joe. Manchin (D-WV). “So many rural areas, especially rural Appalachia, do not have any connectivity whatsoever. We’ve been able to hotwire a wire line into all rural libraries. If a hotspot could be given to a veteran, they would be able to connect for telehealth. Right now, they can’t. All they’re doing is audio health.”

VA also is relying on new technology when it comes to screening veterans who appear in person at facilities. For months now, VA facilities have screened everyone coming through the door, questioning them about symptoms that could be attributed to COVID-19. Now that process can be done digitally, reducing the time a veteran is waiting in the lobby with other patients. 

The digital pre-entry screener is the creation of Jacob Goldberg, son of Durham VAMC Chief-of-Staff Kenneth Goldberg, MD. 

Goldberg’s digital version of the screening process included bold colors, large text, big buttons and simple questions, making it easy to understand for veterans using it on their own. VA’s Office of Information Technology recognized the benefit of the digital screener and created an enterprise-wide version, launching their own version less than two weeks later. 

To start using the COVID-19 digital pre-entry screener, VAMCs can direct patients and staff to text “screen” to 53079. Patients will receive a link to the digital screener. They will also receive a message asking if they need to speak to someone immediately, and to text back VCL if they want to be connected to the Veterans Crisis Line.