Effective June 11, 2018, all Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) health care providers will be able to offer the same level of care to all beneficiaries regardless of the beneficiary’s or the health care provider’s location. In its recently released final rule, the VA stated that in December 2016 Congress mandated that the agency provide veterans with a self-scheduling, online appointment system, and that the agency meet the demands for the provision of health care services to veterans, regardless of whether such care was provided in-person or using telehealth technologies. As a general rule, most telehealth practitioners are required to comply with various and state-specific licensing, registration, and certification requirements in order to render health care services via telehealth. Failure to do so can potentially jeopardize a practitioner’s professional credentials and could expose them to penalties including fines and imprisonment for the unauthorized practice of medicine or other health care services. These state-specific requirements create certain challenges for telehealth practitioners seeking to practice across state lines.

Therefore, in order to address the mandate issued by Congress, the VA developed and published the final rule to supersede these state-to-state regulations by clarifying that VA health care providers may exercise their authority to provide health care services via telehealth, notwithstanding any state laws regarding licensure, registration, or certification requirements that might be conflicting with taking these actions. Essentially, the VA is exercising its authority as a federal agency to preempt conflicting state laws relating to the practice of medicine or other health care services via telehealth. These efforts by the VA are designed to better protect its health care providers from potential enforcement actions by individual states and/or their respective professional boards, provided that these practitioners are providing telehealth services within the scope of their VA employment.

It must be noted that the final rule’s scope is narrow and only applies to health care providers who are employed by the VA. The final rule does not cover contractors, including health care providers who are participating in the Choice Program. The final rule also does not expand the scope of practice for VA health care providers beyond what is required or authorized by federal laws and regulations or the laws and regulations relating to the practice of medicine or other health care services that are dictated by the state(s) in which the health care provider is licensed to practice. Additionally, the final rule does not affect the VA’s existing requirement that all VA health care providers must adhere to all applicable laws and regulations regarding prescribing and administering of controlled substances, which not only obligates a provider to comply with such laws in the state(s) where he/she is licensed to practice, but also with the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Among the public comments submitted in response to the VA’s proposed rule, published October 2, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that has been a big proponent of efforts to expand access to telehealth services, applauded the amendments to the VA’s regulations, stating that it will “provide an important example to non-VA health care providers, state legislatures, employers, patients, and others of telehealth’s potential benefits and may spur innovation among other health care providers and, thereby, promote competition and improve access to care.”

Telehealth providers and stakeholders should closely follow the VA’s progress as the agency works to implement the final rule. Any resulting successes, as well as any failures, may meaningfully impact the continued expansion and adoption of telehealth technologies and services among the private and commercial sectors, as well as potentially influence continued state legislative efforts in this developing area.

Throughout the campaign season and the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the current Administration has voiced a commitment to furthering telehealth advancement. For example, during the campaign, then-candidate Trump emphasized the importance of telehealth tools in reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”). More recently, both U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma stated in their confirmation hearings that they were interested in promoting the use of telehealth technology. On Thursday, August 3, 2017, VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, joined by President Trump, took steps towards fulfilling this commitment, announcing three telehealth initiatives aimed at improving access to and quality of care for veterans.

First is a forthcoming regulation that Secretary Shulkin referred to as “Anywhere to Anywhere VA Healthcare.” Under current law, VA practitioners may provide in-person health care services in any state, as long as they are licensed in one state, without needing additional professional licensure. This proposed regulation would expand the ability to engage in multistate practice to VA practitioners who are providing telehealth services. Anywhere to Anywhere VA Healthcare, if enacted, would authorize VA practitioners to serve veterans using telehealth technologies, regardless of the locations of the provider or the patient, as long as the VA practitioner maintains a valid professional license in good standing in at least one state.

The second telehealth initiative discussed during last week’s announcement is an app titled “VA Video Connect” that allows veterans to connect with health care providers via secure and web-enabled video on their smartphones or computers. Currently, VA Video Connect is being used by 300 VA providers in 67 hospitals, and the VA intends to roll-out the app nationwide over the course of the next year. The third telehealth initiative discussed is another app, titled “Veteran Appointment Request App” or “VAR App.” The VAR App enables veterans to use their smartphones, tablets, or computers to schedule or modify appointments at VA facilities. The VAR App is currently available at some VA locations, but now the VA has planned a nationwide roll-out.

Last week’s announcement of these telehealth-focused initiatives was met with praise from many, including leading telehealth advocacy organizations such as the American Telemedicine Association and Health IT Now. The VA has long been at the forefront of telehealth progress, including being an early adopter of telehealth technology, piloting telehealth programs as early as the 1990s, and pioneering much of the progress being made in telehealth care coordination. As the largest telehealth program in the country, the VA continues to be a leader in the telehealth space. Last year alone, 700,000 veterans received telehealth services through the VA. For more information about the VA Telehealth Program, visit VA Telehealth Services.