Soldiers at Fort Cavazos, Texas, may have difficulty getting corrective vision surgeries such as LASIK until at least January because of a doctor shortage.
After a week of inquiries from Military.com, a spokesperson for the base's medical center said that refractive eye surgeries -- which can alleviate or fix farsightedness, nearsightedness and astigmatism -- are being "reduced and prioritized to ensure we meet the soldier readiness mission." The issue affects LASIK surgeries, the most popular type of refractive surgery, as well as another procedure known as PRK.
While a sign at one of the base's clinics -- a picture of which was sent to Military.com by a source last week -- said the surgeries were suspended, the spokesperson pushed back on that characterization and said the sign has since been removed.
"Like many health care systems, both military and civilian, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center is experiencing provider shortages in certain areas such as optometry and ophthalmology," Rodney Jackson, the spokesperson for the medical center, said in emailed answers to Military.com.
"As LASIK and PRK surgeries are considered elective surgeries, this capability does not take priority over annual vision readiness requirements for soldiers," Jackson added. "We expect this capability gap to last for approximately 90 days."
While refractive eye surgery is considered an elective procedure under most insurance plans, the Fort Cavazos medical center's own website emphasizes the benefits the surgeries can have on a soldier's ability to be mission-ready.
"Operating complicated sighting systems, wearing protective masks or night vision goggles, working in rain, mud and sand present challenges to those dependent on corrective lenses," the website says. "Surveys from redeploying soldiers who had refractive surgery before deployment praised the surgery as increasing their combat effectiveness and overall confidence to perform the mission."
Jackson did not cite any specific alternatives for soldiers who can't get LASIK or PRK while services are reduced at the base medical center, but said patients can talk to their primary care doctor or, for an eye emergency, visit the emergency room.
He also did not directly answer what the base will do in the next 90 days to ensure it can get back to the regular pace of surgeries beyond saying there are "many hiring actions outstanding."
While Jackson pointed to national trends of physician shortages to explain Fort Cavazos' issue, doctor shortages have also popped up throughout the military health care system since the 2017 defense policy bill required a massive restructure of the system. Management of hundreds of hospitals and clinics, including at Fort Cavazos, moved from the military services to the Defense Health Agency.
Plans to cut thousands of medical billets as part of the restructuring have been repeatedly paused, but some downsizing has effectively already happened as vacant jobs go unfilled.
The staffing shortages have pushed patients into civilian care in the community, sometimes in areas where local facilities can't support such an influx. A 2022 watchdog report found the shortages contributed to staff being stretched thin and burned out.
The reduction of the eye surgeries at Fort Cavazos is also the latest issue affecting quality of life on the base.
Over the summer, soldiers had difficulty accessing food services as most of the dining facilities were either closed or open only during limited hours, and the base was posting conflicting information about schedules. The dining problems meant some junior soldiers, many without cars, had to find a way to get to a dining facility a 30-minute drive away.
The dining facility issues were caused by leaders' struggle to juggle logistics while most of the base's cooks were away for deployments, missions, field training or other events.
-- Steve Beynon contributed to this report.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.