As former associate chief at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center eye service, former chair of the national VA eye surgery quality improvement program and former senior executive ophthalmologist coordinating care across the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs for service members who sustained eye and vision injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was most distressed to read of Timothy Connelly’s unfortunate — and unnecessary! — experience trying to schedule an appointment at the VA eye clinic (“My dealings with the VA: In a word … frustrating,” July 5).

There is no need to tolerate such an operation that does not meet the needs of veterans in a timely manner. In the past, the Minneapolis VA eye clinic has performed as well as — even better than — many private eye clinics. There are plenty of reasons that this VA eye clinic can be brought back into shape. It should be noted that neither Connelly’s experience nor my sympathetic criticism should be leveled at any individual physician or clinician. This is clearly a system failure.

For many years, the VA eye clinic was run with close academic and clinical affiliation with the University of Minnesota ophthalmology department.

What has happened between my time at the eye clinic and now? Most crucially, the Minneapolis VA dropped its contract with the U’s ophthalmology department, one of our nation’s best eye-training programs. The contract cancellation may have been motivated by economics, but instead it resulted in diminished access to service for those who have served our country.

The problem with the eye clinic at the VA cannot be solved by more privatization. Such spending erodes the scale economics that a VA medical facility must have to provide the best care for all veterans.

Our veterans deserve the best care possible, delivered in a timely fashion, within a “customer comes first” service environment. The VA eye clinic has had that and can have it again.

Connelly is correct. His experience trying to schedule an appointment was absolutely unacceptable, and it appears that the ability of our veterans to gain timely access to high-quality eye care at the Minneapolis VA has gotten worse. Getting eye care was not always so difficult, and the VA eye clinic should be restored to top performance.

The Minneapolis VA leadership needs to acknowledge the problems in the delivery of eye care and take appropriate steps to improve timely access for those who have served our country. Many thanks to Connelly for allowing his personal experience to serve as a wake-up call, and I fervently hope that, in the near future, he will be able to report to Star Tribune readers a more favorable experience with the VA eye clinic!

 

Dr. Mary G. Lawrence served as attending physician at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center from 1997 to 2012 and as a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School from 1997 to 2010. From 2010 to 2015, she was the VA’s highest-ranking ophthalmologist, leading the interagency Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence (VCE).