Secretary of Veterans Affairs visits Salt Lake City to tour ‘epicenter’ of national telehealth efforts

The isolation borne of the social distancing guidelines required amid the ongoing pandemic is hard enough for everyday people.

But it has had an especially profound impact on veterans.

“In a normal month, we conduct 40,000 mental health tele-appointments. Since the epidemic hit, we’ve gone over 900,000 a month,” Robert Wilkie, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, told media after touring the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday morning.

It is important to note, however, that Wilkie presented those figures not as a cautionary tale, but as a sign of progress.

In a time when it is imperative for people to keep their distance from strangers, to avoid random interactions, and to remain at home as much as possible in order to combat the deadly spread of COVID-19, Wilkie noted it has been imperative for his governmental department to become increasingly nimble, to provide options for veterans — many of whom are older or have health conditions — to have access to services without having to leave their living rooms.

That is what prompted him to visit to Utah and to join Sen. Mitt Romney on a tour of the facilities, which he called “the epicenter” of those efforts.

“I’m here to thank VA employees here in Salt Lake. … The adaptability, the agility of the people at this facility is a testament to the oaths that they take to serve others,” Wilkie said. “… This is where we are training VA employees from across the country to reach their fellow veterans through telehealth. Now, just in the state of Utah, we’ve increased telehealth appointments by 120%. But the other side of this is that here in Salt Lake, they are training employees from across the country to do the same. We are increasing our reach.”

And, he added, that must continue.

More than 3,200 veterans have died as a result of COVID-19, Wilkie said. He said that the spread of the disease is mirroring “what the rest of the country is seeing: We’re seeing an increase in infections, but not an increase in hospitalizations. We are prepared for another surge.”

He went on to praise the efforts of employees working in the VA’s 134 associated nursing homes, saying that “of our 7,500 nursing home patients, we have three who have tested positive for COVID.”

Still, that has required sacrifices and “some very tough decisions,” including keeping elderly vets sequestered from family and friends in order to keep them safe.

All those efforts to preserve physical health, however, can come at the cost of vets’ mental health, he acknowledged.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie took a tour of the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 alongside Sen. Mitt Romney. “This is where we are training V.A. employees from across the country to reach their fellow veterans through telehealth,” Wilkie said.

While Wilkie and Romney got to see many facets of the Salt Lake VA — including a tech lab that helps amputees adjust to new prostheses, rooms converted to “negative pressure” areas where those who test positive for COVID-19 can be safely isolated, and even the on-site canteen just to chat with and thank employees who work with veterans every day — it was the mental health component of the work being done there that apparently weighed most heavily on the secretary’s mind.

Though the VA is doing what it can to help such vets, including the distribution of thousands of tablets to make electronic communication easier, he said, Wilkie conceded that more effort is required to help those who are no longer “cocooned” on military bases.

That prompted him to cite the efforts being made in the area of suicide prevention. It has been a long-term problem (“The first statistics on Army suicides took place here in the Utah territory and the Arizona territory in the 1800s,” he noted somberly) with no easy solutions.

The latest effort, though, resulted in the federal government launching a national task force on suicide prevention back in April — an interdepartmental project utilizing the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and even supercomputers from the Department of Energy in order to create “a national roadmap on suicide prevention.”

It also led to the formation of the Veterans Crisis Line. Vets who are struggling are urged to call 1-800-273-8255. They can also engage in a confidential chat by visiting VeteransCrisisLine.net or by sending a text to 838255.

The growth of the telehealth program is particularly pertinent to Utah, Wilkie noted, because “the majority of our veterans live in rural areas across this country, and the majority of those live in the American West.” Romney pointed out that “we have 50,000 veterans in Utah.”

Given that, and also given that “there’s so many leaders in Washington, D.C., who do not understand the scale of America west of the Mississippi,” Wilkie said, it is all too easy for veterans who live in such places to fall through the cracks.

And so, while mental health telehealth appointments are growing rapidly, he still is advocating for more outreach.

“Hopefully, this week the president will sign legislation that will allow leadership here to provide resources to faith-based organizations, to nongovernmental organizations, to localities,” he said, “to help us find those veterans we don’t see.”