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BVA’s Tom Zampieri Cites NAEVR’s Examples of Defense-related Vision Research at a Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee Hearing on VA Medical Research Programs

October 4, 2007

BVA's Tom Zampieri testifies
BVA’s Tom Zampieri testifies
Today, the Health Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on medical research programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). NAEVR member organization Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) testified, represented by its Director of Government Affairs Tom Zampieri, who was joined by witnesses from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans.

In his testimony, Zampieri not only cited the overall economic burden of eye disease and vision impairment—referencing data from the recently released Silver Book: Vision Loss developed by NAEVR and the Alliance for Aging Research—but also identified four separate categories of vital defense-related vision research extracted from NAEVR’s justification for eye and vision research’s continued eligibility within the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Peer-Reviewed Medical Research Program (PRMRP). These categories include: Eye Trauma, Healing, Infection/Inflammation Control, and Rehabilitation; Visual Function/Visual Acuity; Vision Health Disparities; and Emerging Adaptive Technology Research.

In an opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Cong. Michael Michaud (D-ME) noted that the VA is facing a dramatic increase in the number of veterans who will be in need of its services as a result of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as how it will need to work with both the DOD and other entities to meet the healthcare needs of the nation’s veterans. Ranking Member Cong. Jeff Miller (R-FL) stated in his opening remarks that "nothing is more important than translating medical advances from the bench to the bedside." VA medical research programs are all intramural, meaning that all grantees must be VA employees with at least a five-eighths appointment to the VA. One of the ways that VA medical research is unique is that, in its facilities both patient care and research is conducted under the same roof, meaning that clinical advances go from the bedside to the research bench and ultimately back to the bedside.

Zampieri’s testimony highlighted the fact that 27,767 American service personnel have been wounded in Iraq as of September 25, 2007, including 8,298 soldiers that had injuries significant enough to require evacuation. Between March 2003 and mid-September 2007, 1,162 (or 13 percent of the evacuees) had combat eye trauma, which Zampieri stated represents the highest percentage of eye-wounded for any American war in the past 100 years.

The issue of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) was a frequent topic of discussion by the witnesses, a number of whom cited it as the "signature" injury of the war in Iraq. TBI comprises a wide range of physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms. Zampieri stated that a significant percentage of troops with TBI have a visual component as part of their symptoms, citing epidemiological studies which show that 80 percent of the 3,900 troops reported by the Defense Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) as having TBI have complained about visual problems.

Although focusing primarily on traumatic eye injury, Zampieri also noted the overall impact of aging eye disease, which will affect the VA’s health care system just as it will affect the nation as a whole, citing the fact that every year 200,000 Americans develop Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in Americans over age 65.

That same day, Zampieri was featured in a USA Today story entitled House Focusing on Eye Injuries in Combat Bill. The story reported on efforts by Congress, led in the House by Cong. John Boozman (R-AR), to pass the Military Eye Trauma Treatment Act of 2007 (H.R. 3558, with a companion Senate bill S. 1999) which requires the DOD and VA to track the diagnosis and treatment of each significant eye injury incurred in combat and creates a joint DOD/VA program to coordinate visual dysfunction research related to TBI. In a September 17, 2007, press release, NAEVR announced its support for this legislation, joined by other key vision community organizations, including the BVA, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), American Optometric Association (AOA), and the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO).

Tom Zampieri joined Michael Gorin, M.D., Ph.D. (Jules Stein Eye Institute/UCLA) at the September 25 Capitol Hill release of the Silver Book: Vision Loss, from which he drew data for his October 4 testimony. Dr. Gorin, a genetic ophthalmologist, is studying the extreme light sensitivity associated with TBI.