VA Ignores Congress' Questions on Eye Center

Six months after his office asked a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official why the agency had not, after four years, provided staff for the congressionally established Vision Center of Excellence, Rep. Dan Banishek, R-Mich., is still waiting for an answer.

"We did not receive a response from the VA," said Kyle Bonini, spokesman for Benishek, who chairs the health subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Members of the veterans affairs committee have complained about delayed responses before. In July, about the same time Benishek asked Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel why six of the eight VA slots at VCE were still unfilled, the committee was already awaiting answers to more than 100 queries it had given to the VA -- and some of those were more than a year old.

"The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests -- and in some cases not returning them -- is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee," Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said at the time.

Tom Zampieri, director of government relations for the Blind Veterans Association, is not surprised that Petzel has ignored Benishek. The VA has dragged its feet on the VCE from the beginning, he said.

During the July hearing, Petzel told lawmakers he thought the VA had delivered on its staffing commitment to the center.

The VA has declined several requests from to explain how Petzel could not know after four years that his department had filled only two of the eight VCE jobs.

With Petzel now set to retire, Zampieri believes he has even less incentive to provide information to Congress.

"I'm afraid all this is going to just get swept aside again," he said.

It has been nearly five years since the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing specifically on the VCE. Zampieri had then testified that the VA did not have the funding to begin developing an eye-injury registry in conjunction with the Defense Department despite certain promises.

The recent stonewalling may get VA officials back before lawmakers, according to a committee staffer speaking to on background.

"Although nothing has been scheduled as of yet, hearings on this matter are certainly a possibility," a committee staffer said, speaking on background. "Especially if VA does not make adequate progress in filling positions at the Vision Center of Excellence and fails to fulfill its responsibility to respond to congressional requests for information regarding VCE."

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