Is There a Vision Racket at the VA?

PDS Optical, which obtained a federal contract last December to supply eyewear to veterans, says they’re “committed to serving our nation’s veterans with pride, dignity, and exceptional service.”

But does that service come at a cost?

More finely, at a marked-up cost?

According to a recent Fox News expose, PDS sales staff have been encouraged to upsell vets more expensive eyewear than would be covered by their benefits plan. The eyewear being pushed isn’t fancier, according to Fox. It’s just not ill-fitting and poorly made, as the covered eyewear is said to be by Don Overton, president of the Blind Veterans Association.

He says it works like this:

“[The veterans] go down to the optical shop and they see just horrendous,  antiquated, very inexpensive glasses on the board. And this is what they get,” in terms of what’s covered. And then, he goes on, a “new shiny board comes out with what anybody is going to want. A better pair of glasses that are going to be more comfortable or are probably going to hold up better.”

Naturally, these aren’t covered.

But for the vet who wants a pair of functional glasses, they’re essential. Many agree to pay extra—and that appears to be the plan.

Or rather, the quota.

Fox obtained an internal email that it says was distributed to PDS Optical sales staff:

“As we gear up for December, I’m excited to challenge you to not only meet but surpass our sales goal. . . building on your impressive performance in November, let’s set our sights on a December goal of $30,000 in sales.”

A “goal” being synonymous with quota.

High-pressure tactics have also been used to get prescribing eye doctors to assist in meeting these sales quotas by reducing their pay and then suggesting what they lost in pay could be made back via commissions—earned by getting the vets to pay for eyewear not covered by their benefits plan.

“For us to have a decent paycheck,” one eye doctor reportedly claimed, “we have to try to upsell everything to the veterans just to get a certain percentage of commission from the sales.”

PDS vice president Robb Yopps denies there’s anything to these allegations. He says, “PDS stands by the quality of our eyeglass products and services, creating tremendous value for our veterans and taxpayers every day.”

However, Yopps did not directly address the substance of the internal email published by Fox, nor did he dispute its authenticity. If it is true that PDS Optical aims simply to “create tremendous value” for “veterans and taxpayers every day,” then why the emphasis, per the email, on sales “performance”? Why did PDS higher-ups make it so very clear to its staff that they were expected to “set their sights” on a “goal” of making “$30,000 in sales”?

It reads very much like a pep talk given to the sales staff at a car dealership. The difference being car dealers aren’t paid by tax dollars and don’t get government contracts—and car buyers aren’t typically at the mercy of any one dealer. Veterans, on the other hand, must do business with the provider specified under the terms of their benefit plan, who effectively enjoys a monopoly. If the provider doesn’t offer what they need, the vets—per Overton—have no realistic choice but to pay extra for what they must have in order to be able to see.

Which is exactly not how it’s supposed to work.

Veterans aren’t supposed to be a resource; they are supposed to be served—as a way to pay them back for their service. Unfortunately, government often works contrary to such purposes, precisely because it is government and because government has the power to tax and  spend. It also has the power to distribute favorable contracts that enable the interests that secure them to make a tidy profit on them.

In this case—again, per Overton—on the backs of veterans.

Yopps says vets are provided “no cost items” as per the contract. But he does not address the quality or functionality of these “no cost items,” which begs some important questions that have yet to be answered.

Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Terrence Hayes says, “Veterans who are eligible for prescription eyeglasses from the VA do not pay higher out-of-pocket costs because the prescription eyeglasses are provided to veterans at no cost.” But this merely restates the nature of the vets’ benefits. It does not address the troubling allegations raised by the Fox expose that PDS Optical has been presenting “no cost” eyewear that’s essentially unwearable eyewear to veterans—who are then presented with wearable eyewear that costs them money they ought not to have to pay.

One source who alleges firsthand knowledge of this upselling told Fox: “It hurts me to my heart to see that because I know a lot of veterans are struggling financially and they say, ‘I gotta see. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t have a choice but to pay.'”

These are serious allegations that demand straight answers rather than evasions. If PDS Optical hasn’t been hard-selling vets—and using opticians to help make the sale—then how to explain the internal memo obtained by Fox? What about the multiple whistleblowers who spoke to Fox?

It all bears looking into—if only to establish that it isn’t true.

And if it is true, it can be corrected.

U.S. Army chaplain Colonel David J. Giammona, is host of FrontLine, president of Battle Ready Ministries, and author of the new book, Your Mission in God’s Army: Discovering and Completing Your Faith-Filled Assignment before Christ’s Return. 

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