My Turn, Bill Graham: VA shouldn’t allow optometrists to perform eye surgery

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 18, 2022

As a dedicated attorney, proud North Carolinian, and patriotic American, supporting active and retired members of our military is a priority for me, especially when their health and safety are involved. I have had the honor and privilege of litigating numerous Navy veteran cancer cases, stopping at nothing to seek the justice and compensation that our servicemen and women rightly deserve.

When I heard recently that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s is taking steps that could allow optometrists to perform eye surgery on veterans, I was alarmed.

According to its website, the VA says it is developing national standards of practice for its health providers to ensure safe, high-quality care for the nation’s veterans. If that’s the case, it should not allow optometrists to perform surgery. Period. Doing so would, in fact, make care less safe and lower quality for veterans – the exact opposite of what the VA says it wants to do.

There are no shortcuts to safely perform surgery. If performed incorrectly, botched eye surgery can be impossible to fix and result in vision loss or blindness. That is why the VA’s long-standing policy has been that only ophthalmologists – not optometrists – are allowed to perform eye surgery in the VA health system.

Ophthalmologists complete up to 10 years of training and education, including medical school and hospital residency. This advanced medical education prepares ophthalmologists to care for all eye conditions and perform eye surgery. Most importantly, it provides them with the surgical judgment required to be an eye surgeon. Optometry school is no reasonable substitute for medical school and residency and doesn’t provide optometrists with the opportunity to gain the required level of medical education and advanced surgical training.

I know Senator Thom Tillis as a dedicated public servant and dedicated member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. I encourage him and his colleagues in the House and Senate to urge the VA to maintain its existing policy that only ophthalmologists perform eye surgery on veterans. Implementing new provisions allowing optometrists to perform surgery would lead to increased patient risk and a potential increase in the total cost of VA eye care – a public expenditure covered by taxpayer dollars.

Our nation’s veterans committed themselves to serve, defend, protect, and often put their lives on the line for the safety of our country. The very least we can do is ensure they receive the highest quality surgical care from trained surgeons.

Bill Graham is an attorney in Salisbury and a former candidate for governor of North Carolina.