The Veterans Health Administration is turning to virtual appointments to care for some patients who would otherwise be at risk for coronavirus. But the agency’s telehealth infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with the increasing traffic, causing providers and patients to get kicked off.
Before coronavirus shut down his community in the Denver suburbs, Antonio, an Army veteran in his late 30s, made several trips each month to the Rocky Mountain VA to see his healthcare team: a primary care physician, psychologist and social worker. (He asked that the American Homefront Project withhold his last name because he has disability claims being adjudicated by the VA.)
In early March, Antonio received a text from the Department of Veterans Affairs, warning him that his healthcare routine would soon change. The VA would remain open for in-person care if needed, but would reserve appointments primarily for veterans with urgent medical needs.
“The message made us aware that everything going forward would be over the new telehealth video chat system,” he said.
Antonio downloaded the VA’s Video Connect app to his smartphone, as instructed. But when it came time for his first virtual appointment things started to go awry. His social worker appeared in the chat room, smiling warmly and gesturing with her hands.
“Immediately we had video but no audio,” Antonio remembered. “I could see that she was talking. I looked at her and pointed to my ear and nodded my head, like, ‘No I can’t hear you.’”