Only a tiny fraction on patients needing appointments with eye specialists get them within a month, a survey suggests.
The Patients’ Association, which carried out the research, says that standards differ widely depending on where you live.
As many as 500,000 people are thought to be suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in the UK.
This affects the central field of vision, making it hard to carry out a number of everyday activities.
AMD is the leading cause of blindness among adults in the UK - rates are thought to have doubled in the past 50 years. No services
A quarter of all health authorities, the survey found, offer no treatment for AMD whatsoever.
Only half felt that their eye care services were adequate.
The NHS target from referral by a GP to a specialist consultant appointment is 13 weeks.
However, the average waiting time according to the survey was between three and six months.
It is feared that more degeneration may have occurred while the patient is waiting for treatment.
The chief executive of the Patients’ Association, Mike Stone, said: “We are alarmed by the current situation and urge rapid government action.
“Comprehensive improvements in the UK’s record on prevention of visual impairment and blindness, particularly that caused by AMD, will depend primarily on government prioritisation of these issues.”
Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow, who campaigns on issues affecting the elderly, said: “Every week 100 elderly people lose their sight needlessly because of the lottery in NHS eye care services.
“Timely access to eye care is too much a matter of geography and good luck.
“It makes sense to move eye care up the health agenda. Saving a person’s sight in old age is priceless.”
For the Tories, shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said: “We have known for some time that patients with hearing impairment are treated as second-class citizens in the NHS.
“Now it is clear that those with visual impairment are joining them.
“It is a sign of the Government’s twisted priorities that they seem more concerned with self publicity and spin than they do with preventing such terrible afflictions as loss of sight.”
However, a Department of Health spokesman said that more money was being put into eye care.
She said: “We are committed to improving the standards of eye care available on the NHS.
“The NHS is providing more cataract operations than ever before. In addition, a Ј20m trailblazing cataract scheme aims to ensure a maximum of six months for referral to surgery for cataract patients.
“The number of consultants in ophthalmology has increased by 4% a year in each of the last four years.”
The number of sight tests to the over-60s has also increased, she said.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.