ATLAS, Asheboro site

The Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations station in the Asheboro Walmart demonstrates a similar look to the ATLAS location in Boone.

BOONE — Hoping to cut down on time a veteran may have to travel to a medical center for care, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has piloted several sites across the nation for video visits with providers — including in Boone.

According to Lesly Roose, who works in the VA’s Office of Connected Care, the VA has for some time now conducted “telehealth” work at non-VA locations. The VA explains that telehealth uses technology and data to improve the way VA provides patient-centered care by providing real-time, interactive video visits; in-home and mobile health remote monitoring; and devices that gather and store health data. The department stated that it could offer telehealth services in a person’s home, a nearby VA medical clinic or in VA hospitals.

Last year, the VA decided to roll out what it calls its Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations program as part of the VA’s Anywhere to Anywhere initiative started in May 2018, which aims to deliver VA care to all veterans regardless of where they live. Roose — the ATLAS program manager — said the VA staff decided to formalize its telehealth operations at non-VA sites by creating ATLAS as a pilot program.

The piloted ATLAS site in Boone was opened inside the Boone Walmart — located at 200 Watauga Village Drive — in January. According to Roose, one of the closest facilities to Boone would be the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, which is nearly two hours away. The James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn. is roughly an hour and a half drive from Boone.

A growing number of veterans are taking advantage of telehealth services to access their care through the use of the “VA video connect” application, Roose said. In FY 2019, telehealth encounters increased by 235 percent, according to Roose. She added that more than 99,000 veterans used the app at home, eliminating a trip to either a VA or community clinic for care.

The VA’s Office for Strategic Partnerships — in collaboration with VA Telehealth Services and the field-based ATLAS team — connected the organization with Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Walmart locations to launch ATLAS sites to allow veterans to meet remotely with providers.

“Its goal is to enhance the accessibility of VA health care and help bridge the digital divide by establishing comfortable, private locations in communities where veterans often have long travel times to VA facilities, or poor connectivity at home,” Roose said. “ATLAS offers veterans a convenient space to connect with their VA health care team through video telehealth.”

According to Roose, 2.2 million veterans live in rural areas, and 27 percent lack broadband internet access.

When deciding ATLAS sites, Roose said officials took into account factors such as the distance to the nearest VA medical center, the number of veterans in the area and locations with poor broadband capabilities. The first piloted site was launched in October 2019 in Eureka, Mont., at a VFW. Since that time, ATLAS has opened locations in Los Banos, Calif. (VFW), Linesville, Pa. (VFW), Springfield, Va. (American Legion), Howell, Mich. (Walmart), Keokuk, Iowa (Walmart), Fond du Lac, Wis. (Walmart) and Asheboro (Walmart).

Roose also noted that there are 1,200 veterans enrolled for VA care in Watauga County with an additional 1,799 in Ashe County and 1,111 in Avery County.

Ashe Memorial Hospital in Jefferson announced in December that it would now be a TriWest Healthcare Alliance provider for veterans. According to TriWest, the organization starting providing health care to active duty service members, retirees and their families in 1996 under the Department of Defense TRICARE program.

“Now veterans no longer have to travel outside of Ashe County to receive medical VA services,” stated an Ashe Memorial Hospital newspaper advertisement.

For more information on questions about TriWest services at Ashe Memorial Hospital, call (336) 846-7101.

All veterans who are enrolled at the Asheville hospital are eligible to receive care at the Boone ATLAS site, Roose said. Currently, the Boone site is exclusively set up to communicate with Asheville providers. But the site could arrange to connect with other VA medical centers if additional locations would be interested in coordinating efforts, Roose said.

Charles George VA Medical Center Facility Telehealth Coordinator Brittany Brannigan said veterans can use the video chat tool for mental health services, medication reconciliation, opioid renewals and other needs that do not require hands-on exams. The ATLAS site does not have the ability to check vitals such as blood pressure or temperature.

“They can stay in a location that they’re comfortable and that they know,” Brannigan said. “(It’s an option) if you’re going to have a 20-minute appointment and all you really need to do is see (the provider) and talk to them for a little bit and want to have that one-on-one interaction instead of a phone call. We just want to open all of the options for them so that way they can decide how to get their care in the best way they want.”

To make an appointment at the ATLAS site, Brannigan said a veteran should make an appointment with their provider by calling the Asheville VA center at (828) 298-7911. VA medical center staff will then schedule an appointment with the provider at the ATLAS site.

Roose said that once a veteran arrives at the site, he or she would be greeted by a Walmart associate who will guide them to the appointment room located near the pharmacy. The associate will be able to help the veteran check into their appointment and can conduct basic troubleshooting with technical issues, Roose said.

During the ATLAS-facilitated appointment, Roose said the veteran would use video VA video connect services — which is a secure video software — to connect to their providers. The Walmart associate would not be present once the appointment begins and would not have access to the veteran’s medical record or personal information, Roose added. After the appointment, Roose said the provider can send after-visit information to the VA’s online portal at www.myhealth.va.gov/mhv-portal-web/home or mail it to the client’s home.

Vance Janes, the public affairs officer at the Charles George VA Medical Center, said the center wanted to “get the word out” to veterans that the ATLAS service is now available to them.

“Our goal is to get the best possible care to our veterans,” Janes said.

For more information about ATLAS, visit connectedcare.va.gov/partners/atlas.

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