Advocacy helps save military OD positions

Optometry's advocacy efforts played a huge role in reversing a proposal by the Air National Guard (ANG) to eliminate uniformed optometrists.

Uniformed ODs have worked with naval aviators for many years and bring a level of expertise not usually found in civilian optometry. The instrumentation they use and knowledge they have of eyesight use during flight is beyond what an optometrist would ordinarily see in practice. Despite this skill set, uniformed ODs recently faced a threat to their ongoing service.

"I doubt we could have achieved the level of congressional interest in this issue without their support."

The ANG, part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), has more than 100,000 members organized into 89 wings across the country. With the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, Capitol Hill leaders had alerted the DOD that there would be less money for ANG readiness.

In response, ANG drew up a transformation plan to cut down on expenses. The plan included a proposal to eliminate uniformed optometrists and replace them with contracted support through the Reserve Health Readiness Program.

Upon hearing of this development, the Armed Forces Optometric Society (AFOS) immediately began working with the AOA on a strategy to oppose the measure. 

Federal leaders show support

AFOS took a public stand by writing letters to the DOD and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In turn, the AOA petitioned its allies at the state level and on Capitol Hill.

Several members of Congress responded by writing letters to DOD officials. They expressed concerns about the impact eliminating these positions would have on ANG readiness and capability.

"As a Navy pilot with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that any compromise in the visual capacity of our troops can have disastrous consequences," wrote Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), in a letter to Lt. General Stanley E. Clarke III, the ANG's director, last fall.

Optometrist Sen. John Boozman, O.D., (R-Ark.), osteopathic physician Rep. Joe Heck, DO, (R-Nev.), and podiatric surgeon and Army Reserve officer Rep. Brad Wenstrup, DPM, (R-Ohio), wrote similar letters.

Uniformed optometrists in all 89 units took the cause to their wing commanders, who then weighed in with the ANG on the drawbacks of the proposal.

A win—with more work to come

All of these efforts paid off. In a transformation plan update, the ANG indicated optometrists would be added back in as part of its capability.

A key player in this effort was Lt. Col. Alan Peaslee, O.D., a member of the Georgia Air National Guard and assistant to the State Air Surgeon and Joint Surgeon. Dr. Peaslee worked closely with the AOA and AFOS leadership. He provided written rebuttal templates and suggestions to the units for objecting to this proposal.

Dr. Peaslee commended the AFOS leadership for pushing this issue to the forefront. The AOA's connections and strategic maneuvers in the meantime "were invaluable, and I doubt we could have achieved the level of congressional interest in this issue without their support," he said.

This was a clear win, but it's important to note that plans for transforming the ANG will not be finalized for years to come. The AOA and AFOS will continue to work together to ensure fair treatment for military ODs and their patients.

February 28, 2014

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