A vision of a clearer future for our veterans

A vision of a clearer future for our veterans
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According to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Handbook, there are more than one million visually impaired veterans over the age of 45 in the United States — and within that group, approximately 157,000 are considered legally blind.  

While some instances of impaired vision for these veterans may be linked to trauma sustained in battle, much of it may also be connected to age-related vision problems. Many of these vision impairments can be treated and prevented, some with a simple pair of eyeglasses.

Vision care is a cost-effective and critical component of the veteran’s health care program, but many veterans are unaware they are eligible for vision services.

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The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) website indicates that, currently, clinical examinations and vision-enhancing devices are available to veterans through their coverage. The crucial next step, however, is increasing awareness about why vision treatment is a crucial part of veteran health care.

More than 1.5 million U.S. military personnel have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since military operations began in 2001, and a study on the medical records of those who used VHA services reveals that visual symptoms were self-reported by three-fourths of those who had another wound or a traumatic brain injury. This prevalence proves how important it is for eye care professionals to be aware of the high rates of self-reported symptoms and visual problems in military personnel, especially those returning from foreign deployments.

Furthermore, a 2014 study by Optum indicated that annual comprehensive eye exams can facilitate identification of, and intervention in, various high-cost and chronic diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and hypertension, just to name a few. United Healthcare further backed up this research, showing that annual visits to eye care providers can result in early detection of chronic conditions. And as with all medical issues, early detection is key to managing conditions and preventing costly procedures or medications to reverse their effects.

About 80 percent of visually impaired veterans have a progressive disability caused by age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy — and a number of these diseases can lead to permanent vision loss if left untreated. Ensuring veterans understand the importance of vision care services and how to obtain them — especially those provided by the VA — is vital to taking good care of our service members.

Under current policies, visually disabled veterans may be eligible for the VA’s vision health benefits, which range from primary eye care services to advanced clinical care, something many may be unaware exists.  The VA also offers inpatient rehabilitation services for veterans who are blind, including a focus on enhancing skills such as communication, orientation, mobility, manual skills, and recreational and daily living activities. These services make a huge impact on the daily lives of those veterans who have lost their sight.

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There is also a significant need for the VA to assist veterans with preventable eye conditions to ensure they do not deteriorate into blindness. The VA conducted a low vision intervention trial in 2006, which resulted in significant improvement in visual function for all veterans who participated.  Another study showed that more than 85 percent of veterans who received low-vision devices dispensed through the VA were still using them two years later, and reported a great deal of daily benefit from their  use. However, as a report from the VA itself has shown, the supply of low vision and blind rehabilitation services does not meet the current demand — and demand will only grow moving forward.

Our veterans have fought for us, it’s now time we fight for them. We need to enact policy change around vision standards to ensure vision health remains a priority at organizations like the VA, as well as ensure our veterans are educated on the lasting benefits of healthy vision and the assistance available to them.

Kristan Gross is the global executive director of the Vision Impact Institute.