In a continuing effort to increase Veterans' access to mental health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs has set a goal to conduct more than 200,000 clinic-based, telemental health consultations for all mental health specialties in fiscal year 2012. This follows VA's announcement last month that it would no longer charge Veterans a copayment when they receive care in their homes from VA health professionals using video conferencing.
"Telemental health provides Veterans quicker and more efficient access to the types of care they seek," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. "We are leveraging technology to reduce the distance they have to travel, increase the flexibility of the system they use, and improve their overall quality of life. We are expanding the reach of our mental health services beyond our major medical centers and treating Veterans closer to their homes."
The clinic-based telehealth program involves the more than 800 VA community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) where many Veterans receive primary care. If the CBOCs do not have a mental health care provider available, secure video teleconferencing technology is used to connect the Veteran to a provider within VA's nationwide system of care.
As a result, Veterans can arrange appointments at times more in synch with their schedules. The program improves access to general and specialty services in geographically remote areas where it can be difficult to recruit mental health professionals.
"As technology is improving people's lives in many areas, telemental health is making access to health care and support easier for Veterans with mental health conditions," said Dr. Robert A. Petzel, Under Secretary for Health. "For example, one combat Veteran from Iraq cites telemental health as a critical factor in rebuilding her life and coping with the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and military sexual trauma. Telemental health offered her a safe and convenient setting to receive gender sensitive services that helped her fit back into civilian life after three months of therapy."
Since the start of the Telemental Health Program, VA has completed over 550,000 patient encounters. In Fiscal Year 2011 alone, more than 140,000 encounters were conducted with 55,000 Veterans via CBOCs, where providers at 150 hospitals delivered care to veterans at more than 500 clinics.
The Telehealth Expansion Initiative launched in May 2011 called for an additional 21 regional leads, 144 facility coordinators and 1,150 clinical technicians to VA's workforce. When fully implemented, the expansion will provide a potential capacity of 1.2 million consultations annually.
Video to the home is currently projected to grow to 2,000 patients by the end of fiscal year 2012, with 1,500 using innovative new Internet Protocol (IP) video connected to Veterans' personal computers.
In addition to supporting these current programs, the VHA National Telemental Health Center in West Haven, Conn., has pioneered additional new programs that delivered 1,000 specialized patient encounters from mental health experts at multiple VA sites to Veterans throughout the nation. These include over 100 compensation and pension exams, 700 clinical encounters to over 165 Veterans enrolled in behavioral pain treatment programs, and 200 clinical-video and telephone encounters to over 70 Veterans enrolled in a bipolar disorder treatment program.
This campaign is part of VA's overall mental health program. Last year, VA provided quality, specialty mental health services to 1.3 million Veterans. Since 2009, VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent. Since 2007, VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of Veterans receiving mental health services, and a 41 percent increase in mental health staff.
In April, as part of an ongoing review of mental health operations, Secretary Shinseki announced VA would add approximately 1,600 mental health clinicians as well as nearly 300 support staff to its existing workforce of 20,590 to help meet the increased demand for mental health services. The additional staff would include nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.
For more information, on VA's telemental health, visit the Office of Telehealth Services at http://www.telehealth.va.gov/.