After 6 Years, VA Has Added Just One Name to Eye Injury Database

Travis Fugate, a member of the Kentucky National Guard who was blinded by an IED attack in Iraq, wipes his eyes as he testifies on before Congress on May 29, 2014.

Travis Fugate, a member of the Kentucky National Guard who was blinded by an IED attack in Iraq, wipes his eyes as he testifies on before Congress on May 29, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The joint Defense-VA registry was ordered by Congress in 2008.

The Veterans Affairs Department has added only one name to an eye injury registry established by Congress in January 2008, senior VA officials told flabbergasted members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee panel on oversight and investigations today.

The department also is not in full compliance with standards established in 2000 to ensure that blind veterans can access its websites, officials said.

The VA will let a contract for its portion of the Defense and Veterans Eye Injury and Vision Registry this summer, which is expected to be fully operational by October 2015, according to Dr. Maureen McCarthy, deputy chief of the Patient Care Services Office in the Veterans Health Administration.

Though the Defense Department has populated the vision database with 23,663 patients, VA has added only one, to test the system, McCarthy testified. In her written testimony, McCarthy explained that the department needs to hire a contractor to manually extract clinical data from VA’s electronic medical records and its compensation and pension records into a computable database, the VA Eye Injury Data Store.

Information from the data store will then be electronically transferred to the joint eye registry, where it will be used in analyses of veteran eye injuries.

McCarthy told lawmakers that VA received $6.9 million in funds for its portion of the joint registry to cover costs from 2010-2014, with $4.1 million allocated for salaries and $2.8 million for the data extraction contract.

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said “I can’t believe it has taken five years to get this going,” and pointed out that it has taken VA longer to develop its portion of the eye registry than the duration of World War II.

Terry Kebbel, a blind Vietnam Veteran from Las Cruces, N.M., said VA’s lack of compliance with an amendment to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that established accessibility standards for federal websites, has been frustrating.

Kebbel uses a screen reader to translate Web text into audio, but told lawmakers that the structure of VA Web pages, which lack headers, makes that difficult. VA also attaches forms as image files to Web pages, which his reader cannot process, meaning he cannot fill them out, Kebbel said.

Subcommittee chairman Mike Coffman, R-Colo., pressed VA witnesses to say when all their websites would meet accessibility standards set in 2000. Lorraine Landfried, VA deputy chief information officer for product development, said it was difficult to ensure 100 percent access by the blind to VA Web sites because the department is in a constant process of updating its websites and software.