VA Secretary unveils telehealth pilot program for Mississippi - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

VA Secretary unveils telehealth pilot program for Mississippi

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

A new pilot program announced Friday by the nation's Secretary of Veterans Affairs aims to help veterans in some of the most rural parts of Mississippi.

Federal officials also hope the new initiatives -- including a systematic overhaul of the department's scheduling and management systems -- will show positive change in the wake of that 2014 scandal involving wait times nationwide.

"In the same way veterans use their cell phones or tablets to view their bank statements or FaceTime with a family member, we know that there's a way for them to receive health care in this manner," VA Secretary Robert McDonald said to a crowd of nearly one hundred. "We have work to do to balance privacy and convenience. Here in Mississippi is where we're going to try that out first."

Dr. Skye McDougall, recently appointed to oversee VA hospitals in Mississippi and other Southern states, said that also means faster responses from doctors for many vets who live too far from the Capital City to travel back and forth for treatment.

"My goal is to provide access to high-quality care," said McDougall.

When asked about the technology gap with many older veterans, McDonald said they'll offer training for those who don't know how to use smartphones or tablets. 

It's a project he said is essential to the future of the VA, with younger veterans embracing telehealth as they do technology.

If successful, McDonald said they hope to avoid a situation where aging veterans can't get access to the care they need, care that could increase more as they get older.

As it stands now, around 9.5 million veterans nationwide are over the age of 65.

Still, some in Friday's town hall meeting at the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center said their frustrations remain with McDonald and others at the federal level because of inherent mistrust, dating back to the 2014 scandal involving wait times at VA hospitals across the country.

Mississippi's congressional delegation believes that trust has been further strained because of McDougall's appointment to oversee Jackson's facility.

She came under fire because of her February 2015 testimony before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, with several Mississippi leaders accusing her of misleading Congress on wait times for veterans in California.

"How long is the average wait time for a new patient at the Greater L.A. Medical Center?" said U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek at that hearing, representing Michigan's 1st District.

"The average wait time for a new patient right now is about 4 days," McDougall testified.

McDonald criticized coverage from several media reports, most notably CNN, which reported the average wait time for a new patient stood at 48 days.

"To set the record straight, the allegations against her are wrong. What was contained in the letters I received [from Mississippi's congressional delegation] was that she intentionally misled Congress and lied to Congress, and that just wasn't correct," said McDonald. "The question she was asked, she answered as if she didn't hear the word 'new.'"

Her response, however, indicated she did hear that word in the question because she repeated it in her answer to the House committee.

McDonald told those at the meeting that McDougall should have said the average wait time for patients -- not new ones -- was 6.6 days, a minor difference from her response.

It's also a far cry from the numbers CNN and other sources reported, citing internal VA sources and actual documents from the L.A. VA hospital.

All of Mississippi's congressional leaders even went so far to draft a letter requesting McDougall not be considered.

McDonald said during his visit that he has "absolute confidence" in her ability to do her job.

He told reporters that during his tenure, they have already terminated over 2,600 VA employees across the U.S. 

Most importantly, he believes they need to work to repair whatever trust they've broken, and not let the controversy over McDougall's appointment to overshadow what they're trying to do in the wake of that 2014 scandal.

"I think the biggest handicap, honestly, is politics, you know? We got too many people in this country using veterans as political pawns," said McDonald.

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