Tester Urges VA to Bolster Telehealth Services for Veterans in Rural Areas During COVID-19 Pandemic

(U.S. Senate) – At a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing today, Ranking Member Jon Tester pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to strengthen telehealth services to veterans, especially in rural areas, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although many veterans in Montana—especially those in highly rural areas—are accustomed to virtual appointments, we need to remember that not all veterans have access to smart telephone technology or reliable internet access,” said Ranking Member Tester. “What more can we be doing to make these visits more valuable for patients and providers? And how are providers coping with a change in practice? We need to ensure that VA staff feel supported and have the tools they need to adequately care for vets.”

At the hearing, Tester urged VA leadership to lay out its plans to address challenges in providing telehealth services to veterans in rural communities, as VA moves to re-open certain services in some facilities.

Tester continued, “As hotspots and surges move from one location to another, VA’s ability to expand and retract its telehealth capabilities will be critical. Therefore, it will be important to monitor whether the CARES Act funding is adequate to meet ongoing telehealth demand or if successor COVID packages will need to include additional emergency funding to provide these services to veterans.” 

To strengthen VA’s response to COVID-19, Tester fought to deliver nearly $20 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—including $14.4 billion to the Veterans Health Administration for medical services, including telehealth, and $2.15 billion for information technology to facilitate telehealth. Currently 4.7 million veterans in the United States live in rural areas, with 2.7 million enrolled in VA care.

Tester is continuing to champion his bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans’ Mental Health Care Improvement Act, landmark legislation introduced with Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) to increase rural veterans' access to VA care, ensuring that veterans have access to alternative and local treatment options. The bill was successfully voted out of committee earlier this year.

Tester’s opening statement as prepared for delivery can be found HERE.

A one-pager on the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans’ Mental Health Care Improvement Act can be found HERE.