VA Launches Virtual Exam Stations in Rural Communities

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Project Atlas seeks to bring telehealth services to rural communities where veterans lack internet connectivity in their homes. The agency has announced a partnership with private sector groups to test 10 remote telehealth patient examination rooms in locations across the country in coming months.

According to a VA blog post, the VA recently teamed up with Philips, VFW, Walmart, and the American Legion to provide equipment for remote telehealth exam rooms. The Atlas project will enable veterans to conduct virtual appointments with VA care teams and specialists from an internet connected location. Philips made a pledge to the VA several months ago to design the prototype rooms with input from veterans and then donate the equipment for placement in halls for convenient access.

“The VA has a mission to deliver best in class service to Veterans everywhere,” said Deborah Lafer Scher, Executive Advisor to the Secretary who leads the Secretary’s Center for Strategic Partnerships. “By connecting rural Veterans with help from partners like Philips, we will continue to exceed the care standards for our nation’s heroes.”

The department launched VA Video Connect in 2017, which uses encrypted video conferencing to connect patients with their health care team in one-on-one medical appointments from anywhere through a mobile application.

VA Video Connect has accounted for nearly half a million telehealth appointments since its creation, and in 2019, the VA offered more than 2.6 million episodes of care through its telehealth programs. However, the agency has since realized they are still missing people.

“Suddenly we realized that it doesn’t reach everyone. There is a gap,” Dr. Kevin Galpin, executive director of VA Telehealth explained to NextGov. “The challenge is we have the digital divide in the country, so there are veterans who do not have sufficient internet, they don’t have the technology, and in some cases they don’t have the digital skills.”

Under the Atlas program, interested veterans can request appointments by phone or online, similar to in-person appointments. Once they’re set, patients can travel much shorter distances to the facilities, where they can meet with their usual VA providers through VA Video Connect. There is no copay for VA Video Connect appointments and VA providers may prescribe most medications during appointments at Atlas sites. Right now, Atlas only works for appointments that don’t require a hands-on, physical exam. Insiders are hopeful it will expand to more services in the future.

Prototypes for the project are launching in three towns: Eureka, Montana; Linesville, Pennsylvania; and Los Banos, California. Veterans in each of these areas face barriers to care access. For example, Eureka is located nine miles south of the Canadian border and 256 miles from the closest VA Medical Center.

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