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Lawmakers explore telehealth care for veterans

FRANKFORT – In the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest, a rural Kentucky community is creating a unique program that could help solve the nationwide problem of veterans having a hard time getting in to see a doctor.

“I understand what we are introducing to you today is probably the first of its kind in the whole country,” Rep. Marie Rader, R-McKee, said while testifying yesterday before the Interim Joint Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection. “Maybe no other community has this opportunity.”

What Rader introduced is an initiative that will allow veterans to use video communication technology at the Jackson County Public Library to receive medical care from VA doctors, a practice broadly known as clinical video telehealth.

“I think it will provide incredible access and allow for the VA to enhance our delivery of that health care to our veterans who need it, especially in the rural areas of Kentucky,” said Dr. Tuyen T. Tran of the Lexington VA Medical Center. “It’s FaceTime taken a notch higher.”

The closest VA medical center for the estimated 650 veterans in Jackson County is about 70 miles away, Rader said. There is no hospital of any kind or even a long-term care facility in the county of about 13,000.

Tran described technology that allows doctors to remotely listen to their patients’ hearts and lungs. A high-definition camera can be used to examine ailments such as skin lesions. He said the technology is so good that doctors are able to treat the president with it instead of having to travel with him at all times.

“There is not very much that I can’t do remotely that I have to do in person,” said Tran, who is the medical center’s associate chief of staff specializing in virtual care.

He said patients would still have to come to an outpatient satellite clinic like the one set to open on Oct. 1 at the library in Jackson County.

“But it is still a heck of a lot better than driving all the way to Lexington or Louisville for their care,” Tran said. “The library seems to be a nice place. They can offer us a room in the back so we can have some privacy. Patients and veterans don’t have any anxiety about walking into a library.”

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said he likes the idea of the service being offered in libraries.

“The libraries are working very hard to remain relevant with the way things are changing,” Higdon said.

Rep. Rob Rothenburger, R-Shelbyville, suggested offering clinical video telehealth for veterans at local health departments.

“All counties have a health department,” he said.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said he helped craft’s Kentucky telehealth laws years ago.

“Some of us saw the vision you see right now,” he said to Tran. “It is good to see what you are doing.”

Tran said the major obstacle for the VA to implement the program statewide was broadband access. And Rader said her community would not be able to take advantage of clinical video telehealth if it was not for the investment made in broadband by the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in McKee.

“If you can do this is a rural county like mine, this can be done anywhere in the state of Kentucky,” Rader said.