A simple pair of glasses can radically change the lives of a billion people around the world, according to a 2019 report from the World Health Organization. Here in the US, estimates say about eight to 10 million Americans need refractive correction but don’t have it. Add in the untold millions who are undercorrected or still using an outdated Rx and the numbers quickly mushroom.
That millions here and a billion worldwide could be helped by such a simple thing, but aren’t, is nothing short of a travesty. This isn’t rocket science, it’s refraction—the core component of optometric care for over a century.
So, it’s welcome news that legislation introduced in the House of Representatives on June 28 would expand Medicare coverage to include routine eye exams and vision care materials. With the stroke of a pen, 60 million people would suddenly get these benefits.
The American Optometric Association says that 20.5 million Medicare beneficiaries have vision problems but only 57% received an eye examination during the previous year.
According to an AOA report, the House bill—called the Medicare Vision Act of 2021—would:1
- Expand Medicare Part B coverage to include annual refraction and contact lens fitting services.
- Ensure direct administration of the benefit by Medicare, to keep penny-pinching vision plans out of the mix.
- Provide coverage up to $100 for one pair of eyeglasses or a two-year supply of contact lenses each year.
- Require the materials benefit be administered by Medicare’s Durable Medical Equipment program instead of third-party materials sellers, who are often more interested in their own outcomes than those of senior citizens.
- Provide a pathway to coverage for the low vision aids that are increasingly necessary in an aging population.
“We want to make sure that seniors can live independently for as long as possible,” said House Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), one of the sponsors, in a statement. “An important factor of independent living is making sure that they can see well enough to drive to appointments, walk safely around the house and carefully read prescriptions.”
Over in the Senate, a similar plan is afoot, this one to provide not just vision but dental and hearing services. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are champions of it.
These plans will surely meet with pushback for all the usual reasons. Let’s hope something comes of it, as the need is obvious and the fix—your exam chair—is ready and waiting. The public could certainly do with more attention to their vision needs.
Vision care perhaps deserves greater attention inside the profession—and this magazine—too. We often hear from low vision specialists when our coverage of vision-impairing eye diseases gives short shrift to the help available through low vision aids and services. You can see this month’s letters page for such discussions, in fact.
Point taken: medical eye care may well be where ODs’ educational needs are the greatest right now, but their patients still just want to see better when they leave than when they arrived.