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Community Health Centers in poor, rural communities lack vision care services

Washington, DC—The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services study, "Assessing the Need for On-Site Eye Care Professionals in Community Health Centers," found that the absence of eye-care services in rural and low-income areas is a major public health crisis that puts individuals at greater risk for undiagnosed and untreated eye and vision problems. A full 70% of community health centers do not offer on-site vision care services, the analysis found, because of cost; difficulties with Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance reimbursement; and discrepancies in Medicaid coverage and benefits across states.

"The American Optometric Association [AOA] is committed to increasing access to eye care for all Americans," said Dr. Barry Barresi, executive director of the AOA. "We have a responsibility to help ensure that essential primary eye care services are offered at these facilities. Greater access to preventive eye care can lead to diagnosis and treatment before loss of vision becomes severe or untreatable."

The AOA has joined with the National Association of Community Health Centers, the New England Eye Institute, and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers to advocate for access to high-quality, comprehensive, affordable vision care for medically underserved populations in community health centers.

Randy Brooks, OD, president-elect of the AOA, said, "With firmly established links between healthy vision and success in education and employment, it's not acceptable to have less than one-third of community health facilities offering primary eye and vision care on site. This dire situation makes it even more important that AOA-backed legislation like the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act (HR 1884 in the 110th Congress), a bipartisan bill to expand access to primary eye and vision care in underserved areas, be given fast-track consideration on Capitol Hill."

Health care advocates advise that a more detailed evaluation of the type and quality of eye care should be conducted to help health centers identify cost-effective practices and evaluate the cost of vision health. Experts also advise that additional research should be conducted to assess the value of having an eye care professional on-site and the impact on reducing or eliminating vision disparities.

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology 2009 annual meeting, "Reducing Disparities in Eye Disease and Treatment," will be held May 3 to 7 at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, Fort Lauderdale, FL. For more information, e-mail or call 240/221-2900.

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