U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie told Delaware Valley Journal telemedicine was the “wave of the future” of the VA, but acknowledged a lack of access to high-bandwidth internet — especially in rural parts of Pennsylvania — has slowed the progress.

Telehealth appointments have surged in the wake of the coronavirus.

“The majority of our veterans live in rural America,” Wilkie said Thursday. “I’m not just talking about America west of the Mississippi River — I’m talking about that area of Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.”

“The barrier there is making sure people can get on the internet.”

Last month, the VA announced that health visits using the department’s own VA Video Connect software “increased from approximately 10,000 to 120,000 appointments a week between February and May of 2020,” an increase of over 1,000 percent.

And once you look outside that software, the numbers get even bigger.

“On a normal month, just on the mental health side, we have about 40,000 [telehealth] encounters. We’re up over 900,000 now a month,” Wilkie said.

One significant step the VA has taken to meet demand is partnering with some Walmarts in rural regions to provide telehealth “living rooms.”

“You go to the [Walmart] pharmacy counter, you put your veteran’s card on the table, they will open the counter up, take you to what looks like a living room, and you can talk to the local VA hospital.”

A handful of those Walmart partnership sites are already in operation in states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, and the VA plans to be more aggressive in opening new locations as concerns about the coronavirus ease.

Even after the virus concerns have eased, the locations are expected to still benefit those veterans in rural areas who don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet but might otherwise have to travel long distances

As just one local example of how telemedicine has exploded in the wake of the coronavirus, the VA said that between March 1 and June 30, the VA hospital in Lebanon conducted:

  • 2,482 Mental Health video appointments
  • 998 Primary Care video appointments
  • 598 Physical and Occupational Therapy appointments
  • 575 Nutrition appointments
  • 401 Home Based Primary Care appointments to reach our home bound Veterans
  • 216 Surgical video appointments that include pre-op and post-op care

A study released in April by the VA concluded that mental health telemedicine visits for post-traumatic stress disorder are “effective, feasible, and acceptable, and can increase trauma survivors’ access to effective PTSD care.”

When asked if the VA had enough qualified mental health specialists, Wilkie said the department is giving even more focus to mental health issues currently.

“If anything, our approach to mental health has gone way up in the last two years. We have same day mental health services now — that is a sea change in the way that the VA does its work. I’m very proud of our mental health services and in our treatment of addiction and our efforts on suicide.”