WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (MilCon-VA) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing examining the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Telehealth programs. Ranking Member U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) delivered the following opening statement:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and welcome to this subcommittee. Good afternoon and thank you to our witnesses for coming today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Telehealth programs.
For years this committee has supported expanding and enhancing VA’s telehealth efforts, particularly for rural and highly rural veterans. VA was already experienced in providing telehealth services when the pandemic hit, and the dramatic expansion of services offered during COVID should be commended. It isn’t easy to institute this type of change in any large organization, and the speed with which VA did so is remarkable.
In January 2020 VA provided just over 41,000 patient visits using video telehealth straight to their home. By April that number increased to more than 393,000, and by January of 2021 the number was 798,000. From January to January this represents a 1,831 percent increase in the number of telehealth visits. Just last month VA in-home telehealth visits totaled more than 965,000, so this growth trend is continuing.
Between emergency supplemental and FY 21 base funding, Congress has provided VA with roughly $5 billion to enhance telehealth services. Clearly this has been a successful effort to date, but as this committee looks toward the FY 22 budget and beyond we will want to know more about how VA plans to harness this momentum and broaden access to these services. Behind the enormous growth we’ve seen over the last year are some statistics that show there are still challenges ahead that need to be addressed. In a non-pandemic environment telehealth is a valuable tool to enhance access to health care for veterans in rural, highly rural and underserved areas. When we look at the utilization numbers over the last year, though, we see that much of the growth has been realized in more urban and populous areas. I look forward to hearing more about what VA is doing to address this and what barriers our rural veterans still face to access telehealth services.
Thank you to our witnesses and thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.