More than three years since it committed to funding six positions for the Vision Center of Excellence, the Department of Veterans Affairs still has just two people on board.
The VA also has not followed through on plans to build a registry of blind and vision-impaired veterans that would complement one the Defense Department has been developing at a cost of several million dollars a year for several years, according to Tom Zampieri, director of the Blind Veterans Association.
"The VA has about 130,000 eye-injured people -- OEF, OIF veterans. None have been put on a registry," Zampieri said on Wednesday.
The Defense Department and VA estimate eye injuries account for about 15 percent of all battlefield traumas and have resulted in more than 197,000 ambulatory and 4,000 hospitalized cases. In addition, about 75 percent of TBI patients also suffer vision impairments.
The VA's apparent inattention to the Vision Center of Excellence was brought up on Wednesday by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., during a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.
"The fact is two current staff members from the VA are at the [center]," he said. "This is in spite of promises from the Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] that there will be no less than six. Why hasn't more staff been located at the center?"
Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel told Benishek that his "understanding is that we have committed the staff that we agreed to," but that he would look into it.
VA staffing and budgeting for the VCE has been a problem since Congress created the center –along with others concentrated on traumatic brain injury, prosthetics and hearing -- in 2008.
The Defense Department has appropriated about $9 million annually for the past few years, with about $5 million of that going to the registry. The VA has appropriated about $10 million a year for research, but just $1 million toward operations, including professional staff.
According to Zampieri, the staff currently includes an optometrist and an ophthalmologist. Other staff hires should include a therapist who would act as liaison to all DoD medical facilities, a dedicated information technology staffer to work on the registry, and an administrator.