The Trump administration on Thursday announced a new effort to expand veterans' access to telehealth services around the country, which includes a new app that will let veterans make healthcare appointments from their cellphones.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was in the White House Thursday to announce the VA's new Telehealth Services program alongside President Trump, who made a point during the campaign of improving services for veterans.
The new effort aims to use telehealth services to help veterans seeking care wherever they are, including when they're traveling. Shulkin told reporters that about 700,000 veterans used telehealth services last year, but said the goal is to expand that use over time.
"I expect this to dramatically increase our numbers from 700,000," Shulkin said.
One example is the use of VA Video Connect technology that can help diagnose patients when they are not at one of the VA's clinics. Shulkin said expanding the use of that tool will be especially helpful in reaching veterans who need mental health services.
The administration is also introducing a Veteran Appointment Request application that will let veterans book appointments from their phones. "This is all part of our modernizing the VA," Shulkin said.
Shulkin said using smartphones to book appointments will not let veterans cut the line, and will subject to the normal wait times that vary across the country.
He also said it would only be used for veterans seeking appointments within the VA healthcare system, not outside clinics that many veterans are using under the Veterans Choice Program.
The VA said this year that wait times vary greatly across the country. Shulkin told USA Today in April that it can be an average wait of eight days in Long Beach, Calif., to get a mental health appointment, and 87 days in Santa Fe Springs, California.
But Shulkin said then that the VA is looking to open up these data points in order to put external pressure on the VA to shorten these times.
"[T]he way that you fix this is not by internally motivating people to fix it — you actually need the external environment, people looking, saying I don't understand why it's 45 days," he said.