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Hon. Gus M. Bilirakis, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And, good morning and welcome to our witnesses and audience members.

I’m excited to be here with you all today to discuss wireless health technology within the VA, particularly how it can be utilized to increase access to care and improve patient outcomes for veterans in hard-to-reach rural areas.

Approximately 40% of the veteran population resides in rural areas and those numbers are expected to increase as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return to their rural homes.  Living in a hard-to-reach area presents numerous barriers to care for veterans who must often drive long distances and find overnight accommodations to make appointments at distant VA facilities.

These factors would be significant for anyone but are especially burdensome to veterans who struggle with pain, disability, or chronic illness. I am proud of the work we have done on this Subcommittee to help ease the burdens rural veterans face but, as always, more work remains.

VA currently operates the largest telehealth program in the world, operating in 144 VA medical centers and 350 VA community-based outpatient clinics. Estimates indicate that 263,000 veterans were cared for using VA’s telehealth initiatives in fiscal year 2009 alone.

Telehealth is the provision of health care services through telecommunications technologies including cell phones, Smart phones, the Internet, and other networks. When a patient receives a text message reminder from their doctor, they are engaging in telehealth. When a doctor is able to monitor an at-risk patient’s blood pressure or heart rate through a remote monitoring device, they are engaging in telehealth. When a specialist at a VA medical center is able to communicate with and make a vital diagnosis on a veteran patient at a community-based outpatient clinic many miles away, they are engaging in telehealth.

 Early results indicate that when wireless technology is utilized effectively, it can be a tremendous benefit, especially for rural veterans. From these programs we are learning that when technology is incorporated into healthcare, it can improve access, efficiency, innovation, and outcome while reducing barriers to care.

 While such technology is not without its challenges, I am encouraged by the early successes of VA’s telehealth programs and I look forward to learning more from our discussion this morning.  

I yield back the balance of my time.