VA looks to invest heavily in mHealth, telehealth

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

Telehealth and mHealth initiatives are playing a significant role in the proposed 2016 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, with officials laying out more than $1 billion for specific telehealth programs and devoting more than half of the proposed IT budget for so-called "customized" programs.

According to the Military Times, the total proposed VA budget comes to $56 billion, with another $63.3 billion set aside for 2017 in case of a government shutdown – something that's done each year. The budget has increased some 73 percent since 2009.

The 2016 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Of that budget, $1.2 billion would specifically go toward telehealth efforts to connect rural and remote veterans with healthcare services, a $126 million increase over the 2015 budget.

One priority identified by VA officials is mental health treatment. The VA has earmarked $7.2 billion in its budget for mental health treatment in a primary care setting and to provide "more intensive interventions in specialty mental health programs" for severe or chronic mental health disorders. That may include telehealth services, a key tool in ongoing projects to treat veterans with PTSD and other stress-related conditions.

In all, VA officials said, 81 percent of the proposed budget would "directly support delivery of veterans' medical services and benefits." VA estimates place the number of veterans to be enrolled in its healthcare systems in the coming year at 9.4 million, including 1.4 million veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Stephen Warren, the VA's chief information officer, recently told reporters that 55 percent of the proposed $4.1 billion IT budget would go to "customized medical programs" designed to improve care delivery to veterans. "It's reinforcing and refreshing our infrastructure," he told reporters during a recent briefing.

Within the remaining proposed 2016 IT budget, Warren said, 20 percent would be dedicated to adding new features and functionality to the Veterans Benefits Management System, 19 percent would go toward maintenance and 6 percent would be directed to security. The VA's IT system serves some 152 hospitals, 56 regional benefits centers and 821 outpatient clinics in the country.

Broken down further, the budget earmarks $30 million to interoperability initiatives and $203 million for upgrades to the VA's EMR system, with $183 million tabbed for VistA Evolution and $20 million for the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record system.

According to news reports, the proposed IT budget would represent a $230 million increase from the 2015 budget.

Among the VA's priorities, Warren said, is an effort to streamline the MyVA portal, which enables veterans to access VA services from any location and on a variety of devices.  A lot of that involves breaking down legacy systems that store data in silos. The goal, he said, is to "move to veteran-focused outcomes vs. an organizational-focused outcome, collapsing down to that single cyber portal … and a single unified experience."

In proposing the budget, VA officials noted they set aside $5 billion in mandatory funding to hire more doctors and staff and improve the VA infrastructure, with another $10 billion set aside to enable veterans to use civilian healthcare services through the Veterans Choice program. They warned that more money would be needed to deal with veteran healthcare services in the future.