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Montana VA Telehealth Appointments Triple During COVID-19 Pandemic

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie speaking outside of the Kalispell, MT VA clinic, September 29, 2020.
Aaron Bolton
/
Montana Public Radio
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie speaking outside of the Kalispell, MT VA clinic, September 29, 2020.

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is visiting Montana this week to highlight the agency’s increased use of telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic. More veterans are choosing to visit with their providers electronically, although others don’t know that’s an option.

The VA has turned to telemedicine appointments as in-person capacity at health care facilities across the country was cut back during the pandemic. Secretary Wilkie made note of the change during a stop in Kalispell Tuesday.

"In a normal month, we conduct about 40,000 mental health tele-appointments. In June and July, in those months, we had over 905,000 and we continue to expand."

According to the federal agency, the number of telehealth appointments tripled at the Montana VA in the early months of the pandemic. 

Veterans groups like the Montana VFW are happy with the new emphasis on telehealth. Quartermaster Tim Peters says more vets are utilizing the service even in areas with local VA clinics.

"For example, I live in Helena, but my doctor I see on telehealth, and she lives in Boise, Idaho."

However, vets with access to some of these services just don’t know about them, says Terry Baker with Kalispell-based Vietnam Veterans of America.

"The VA is a little bit poor on getting the word out to veterans on how to access this.”

Baker says many of his members across northwest Montana are considered high risk for COVID-19 complications and would like more telehealth access during the pandemic. 

According to Broadband Now, roughly a third of Montanans don’t have access to broadband speed internet. VA Secretary Wilkie says for those without broadband access, the agency is able to provide some services over the phone.

Wilkie also points to telehealth facilities popping up in places like the Eureka VFW as part of VA’s efforts to reach veterans without internet access. That clinic opened up in January. Montana VA officials say while use dipped this summer, it’s expected to significantly increase this winter. The VA says it plans to open similar sites across the U.S. over the next two years. 

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