- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Millions of veterans living thousands of miles apart share a special bond — they put their lives on the line in defense of this great nation. Three such men — Mike Hammer, William Christofferson, and Ron Conley —recently fought and won another battle, this time for quality health care.

The three men — from Tennessee, Utah, and Pennsylvania, respectively — came together when they were informed that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive that allowed optometrists, non-medical doctors (MDs) — to operate on veterans and other individuals eligible for VA care.

Currently, only one state, Oklahoma, permits optometrists (non-MDs) to perform laser eye surgery, while 35 other states have prohibited outright this type of procedure. In fact, 14 states, including my home state of Indiana, have debated and soundly rejected similar measures — seven states in 2004 alone.

The dangerous VA directive would have allowed optometrists with no formal surgical education or training to go to Oklahoma, take a 16-hour course, pass the Oklahoma optometry certification exam, and then go anywhere in the country and practice laser eye surgery on any veteran in any VA facility. Thus, in states that have prohibited this type of threat or rejected Oklahoma-style legislation, optometrists — under VHA Directive 2004-045 — could have practiced surgery on veterans against the wishes of elected state lawmakers.

Deeply concerned and united in purpose, the three veterans mentioned above launched into action and persuaded the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans organization, to pass a resolution calling on the VA to reverse course. Consequently, on December 17, 2004, the VA wisely rescinded the earlier Veterans Health Administration Directive (VHA Directive 2004-045) that authorized the performance of therapeutic laser eye surgery in the VA system by non-medical doctors. The new Directive (VHA Directive 2004-070) specifies that only ophthalmologists — fully trained and certified medical eye surgeons — will be allowed to perform therapeutic laser eye procedures in VA medical facilities.

As a proud veteran of the U.S. Army, I find it shocking that this practice was given such serious consideration in the first place. Any surgical procedure has the potential to cause adverse affects. And in older populations — such as those served by VA facilities — the rate of adverse events tends to increase for any operation. Therefore, it makes no sense that this very population — those most in need of a medical doctor’s training and education to determine the safest surgery for their overall health — be needlessly exposed to the very real threat of having a non-MD operate on them.

To the contrary, it should be our highest priority to help ensure the safety of those who have so proudly and bravely defended our great country. All U.S. veterans deserve to have quality health care performed by medical doctors with the proper education and training.

Thanks to the watchful eyes of veterans like Messrs. Hammer, Christofferson, and Conley, departing Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi ultimately did the right thing by rescinding the dangerous VA directive. I stand with all veterans to personally thank Mr. Principi and the Veterans Administration for recognizing the importance of quality eye care for all veterans.

And now — more than ever — millions of veterans’ eyes are upon recently confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson to uphold the policy that our veterans so rightfully deserve.

Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, served in the Army and Army Reserves (1957-1962).

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