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VA, KU Medical Center expanding health care access

Associated Press Modified: November 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm •  Published: November 13, 2012
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Veterans Administration and the University of Kansas Medical Center announced plans Tuesday to provide Kansas military veterans with more access to telemedicine.

Officials said the effort will allow veterans to access mental health care without traveling great distances to a VA facility.

Dr. William Patterson, director of the VA's Region 15 in Kansas and Missouri, estimated that mental health issues affect 25 to 30 percent of all veterans in the country.

"Nationwide that's a major issue for the VA to meet all the demands," Patterson said.

Telemedicine links a patient with a health-care provider through a secure video link for basic diagnostic services and follow-up visits with specialist. The VA program began as a pilot program in 2011 focusing on mental health services with three rural hospitals.

A KU affiliate in Garden City is the first to sign up to continue the telemedicine link and contracts are being finalized for the other two. All will continue mental health initially, though officials said that could expand to other health care service in the future.

Patterson said the biggest hurdles to expansion have been making sure that the telemedicine site and video connections are secure to protect patient privacy.

Currently, 80 facilities participate in telemedicine activities with the KU Medical Center, which is based in Kansas City, Kan. The new partnership will look to expand the services to other safety-net hospitals and clinics.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who hosted the news conference announcing the program, said the program was the first of its kind between the VA and a state model.

"This is a clear example of how federal and state agencies can cooperate to deliver improved mental and health care services in a more cost-effective manner," Brownback said.

The governor said the idea of the state-federal collaboration began with Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican, who sought to expand telemedicine services to veterans. Sloan said the program can serve as a template for expanding access to other Kansas residents, especially those in rural areas deemed medically underserved and lacking sufficient providers.

Easier access and reduction of travel times should lead to more veterans in rural areas taking better care of themselves, said Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard.

He said many veterans are forced to take a day or two off of work to travel to Wichita, Topeka or Leavenworth to get to a VA hospital to see a provider, something many cannot afford to do. As a result, mental health issues that can be addressed are left untreated.

"It's truly a model for the nation to look at," Tafanelli said of the collaboration. "This increases the likelihood of veterans seeking the care they have earned and deserve."

Officials said improving access will allow for providers to meet with veterans to check their conditions, order follow up care or even write prescriptions to treat their illnesses. Patterson said some visits have even included surgical telemedicine where veterans have initial consultations with VA doctors before having a procedure completed locally.