VA's New Telehealth Program Bridges Gap to Rural Vets with Limited Web Access

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VA improves telehealth services for veterans
A new telehealth program, ATLAS, endeavors to reach veterans living in rural areas who lack sufficient web access.

Lee Dhanenes chuckles at being called a trendsetter when it comes to using the latest medical technology from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I was more of a guinea pig," Dhanenes, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives near Linesville, Pennsylvania, said with a laugh. "I'm a country boy and I'm not too high tech, but this thing was wonderful."

Dhanenes, 75, became the first patient to utilize the Erie VA Medical Center's new ATLAS, or Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations, site last month. ATLAS is located inside Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7842 of Linesville.

ATLAS sites give veterans a private, secure location — in a familiar setting — to meet with their VA provider virtually using VA Video Connect, the administration's secure videoconferencing technology.

Veterans in the Linesville area are among the first in the country to have access to an ATLAS site. VFW Post 7842 of Linesville is only the eighth ATLAS site to open in the U.S., and it's only the second one to open within a post.

ATLAS sites offer VA clinical services that don't require hands-on exams, said Holly Mukina, the nurse manager for connected care at the Erie VA Medical Center.

"Any appointment that veteran could do virtually from home, they can now do at Linesville," she said. "That could be routine primary-care checkups, but it also could be things physical therapy, occupational therapy, dietary appointments, behavioral health, visual impairment support services, social work -- any of those types of things."

Dhanenes, who has vision problems, was asked by the VA whether he'd be willing to use the ATLAS system instead of making about a one-hour drive from his home to the Erie VA Medical Center for one of his follow-up vision appointments.

Dhanenes readily agreed.

"I live about a mile from the VFW. Not having to drive to Erie, it's a big time saver," he said. "A lot can happen between here and Erie. This COVID thing doesn't help, either."

The ATLAS program is a nationwide effort rolling out to get VA care closer to home for veterans like Dhanenes who live in rural areas and may have only limited internet access.

Part of the VA's Anywhere to Anywhere initiative and facilitated by the VA Secretary's Center for Strategic Partnerships, ATLAS is part of a collaborative effort with Philips North America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Walmart. It's using convenient locations with private appointment space.

"I had no privacy concerns. If you have any problems, they're right there to solve it," Dhanenes said, noting there is an attendant to help set up any necessary equipment in the booth before the appointment begins. "I thought I might be a little bit intimidated by it, but I wasn't. There's really nothing to it."

Dhanenes met with Laryssa Stolar, the Erie VA's visual impairment services coordinator.

"I could see her and hear her; she could see me and hear me," he said. "Everyone was super nice and helpful."

Stolar called ATLAS the wave of the future to improve services to veterans.

"This fills need of veterans who don't have WiFi at home," she said. "It also fills the need of our older veterans that really want to participate in these telehealth visits, but they're not tech savvy. They have the stress of using technology, and this removes that stress for them."

John Gennaro, the Erie VA Medical Center's director, agreed ATLAS at VFW 7842 in Linesville will help provide more care to more veterans.

"The whole experience is designed to ensure veterans have easy, convenient access to VA care by reducing barriers that many rural veterans encounter, such as long travel times to appointments or limited internet connectivity at home," he said.

Norm Haas, commander of VFW Post 7842, said the post was honored to be selected as a host site for the region.

"It's humbling to be selected, and it's a truly awesome service," he said. "It's a good partnership for veterans."

There are five members of the post who have been hired through CareLinx to serve as attendants to assist veterans in setting up the booth for their appointments.

Appointments for ATLAS currently are scheduled three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Haas hopes use will increase as more veterans learn of and take advantage of the system.

"My dream is to see it take off and have veterans using it from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday as more learn about the service being available," he said.

There are about 21,000 veterans in Crawford, Erie, Venango, Warren and McKean counties in Pennsylvania, plus Ashtabula, Ohio, who are served by the Erie VA Medical Center, according to Sarah Gudgeon, the Erie VA's public affairs officer.

"We want to expand our patient population and make our veterans know about the services we offer and have an easy connection to the services we can offer them," she said.

Dhanenes said he's sold on ATLAS following his initial experience last month and has another appointment using ATLAS in Linesville later this month.

"I can't say enough good about it," he said.

This article is written by Keith Gushard from The Meadville Tribune, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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