VETS Act Passes the Senate

2018 is already off to a good start—at least on Capitol Hill—for telehealth advocates, with the passage of a key piece of legislation in the Senate. On Wednesday, January 3, lawmakers unanimously gave their approval to the bipartisan Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), the bill’s lead sponsor, announced in a statement. “All of our veterans must have access to quality and timely care, including life-saving mental health treatment, regardless of where they live,” Sen. Ernst, herself a veteran, said. “The VETS Act would allow Iowa’s rural or disabled veterans to receive care from their own home by increasing telehealth and telemedicine services provided by the VA.”

Introduced by Sen. Ernst and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), the VETS Act would remove restrictions that are in place now on the practice of telehealth across state lines, meaning that qualified Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) providers licensed in one state would be able to provide care via telehealth to patients in other states, regardless of whether or not the patient and provider are located in federal facilities. It would also expand eligible sites of care to include patients’ homes and community health centers, meaning that less travel would be required to receive treatment. Essentially, the bill would officially codify the VA’s recent proposed rule on telehealth. That rule, part of the VA’s new “Anywhere to Anywhere VA Health Care” initiative, would permit all VA physicians to treat patients via telehealth across state lines, regardless of where they’re licensed. Sen. Hirono, for her part, also cheered the bill’s Senate passage on Wednesday. “The VETS Act will help Hawaii veterans access high quality VA care and health services when they need it, where they need it,” she said. “I urge the swift enactment of the bill and will continue to fight to ensure Hawaii veterans can access the care they need from a strong, well-resourced VA system.”

In November, the House overwhelmingly passed its own slightly different version of the VETS Act, meaning that the two chambers will now have to reconcile their two bills before sending it for the president’s signature. It was just one of many bills introduced in the current legislative session that seek to expand access to telehealth care, and the second one to receive full passage in one of the two chambers. In September, the Senate unanimously passed the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act, which is aimed at improving the quality of care for high-cost patients with chronic conditions who are enrolled in Medicare. It includes key telehealth provisions, such as additional telehealth benefits for Medicare Advantage patients, and the expansion of originating sites to include patient homes for telehealth consults among those receiving dialysis services. Accountable care organizations (ACOs) would also be able to expand the telehealth services that they offered to beneficiaries. Also in September, two additional bills—the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine (FAST) Act and the Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare Act—cleared their respective committees of jurisdiction, and will now come before the full House for votes. While the timing of those floor votes is unclear, the committee passage served as welcome news to telehealth advocates.

Click here to read the press release from Sen. Joni Ernst on the VETS Act’s passage.

Click here to read a Fierce Healthcare article on the VETS Act.

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