Will you help?

March 30, 2012

I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of the schools and colleges of optometry at this point.  Invariably, I get asked: “How did you first get involved in the AOA?” I wouldn’t have considered myself a political person. However I ran into some issues when my husband Mark and I opened our first practice. Someone told me I couldn’t do something BECAUSE I was an optometrist. Then insurance companies wouldn’t reimburse us for services we were skilled to do BECAUSE we were optometrists. I was raised to believe that it does no good to complain. If something isn’t right, change it. So I asked my state association how I could help, and the rest is history.

Over the years, optometry has been on the harmful end of all sorts of discrimination. From being denied access to medical panels for some of the nation’s largest health insurance plans, to fighting organized medicine and their allies for the right to practice and provide care for our patients as doctors, our profession has always faced both overt and covert discrimination. Many of you know what I’m talking about—issues such as ODs paid less for the same services as other professions, ODs not reimbursed because they are not an MD or restricting ODs to only vision panel participation and not allowing us access to the medical panel. And, while we’ve made great strides over the years in the fight to end this blatant discrimination, the core of the AOA’s advocacy efforts necessarily remains focused on  fighting against any type of discrimination against our profession.

That’s why as the debate over health care reform intensified and a number of proposals posed a new discriminatory threat, the AOA sought to build support in Congress for the strongest possible patient access safeguards we could enact into law. It was an effort by more than just AOA leaders. It included AOA Federal Keypersons who traveled to the U.S. Capitol every year during the annual Congressional Advocacy Conference. It included the ODs who met with their U.S. House members and senators back home. It was the ODs and students who invested in AOA-PAC and the concerned AOA doctors (and patients) from across the country who got involved and wrote, faxed, emailed or called Congress whenever they were asked to do so by our Washington office. Were you one of those doctors who helped?

As the initial proposal became actual legislative language, the AOA threw its full support behind the Harkin Amendment— through committee-level consideration, Senate debate and final passage in both houses of Congress.  A historic victory for the profession, the new law is now the first-ever federal standard of provider non-discrimination, marking a new era and a more level playing field in how health plans treat optometrists and our patients. The AOA had to overcome intense opposition from powerful special interests to get this key provision included in the final version of health reform legislation. Were you one of those doctors who helped?

Some are now saying it wasn’t enough. They also suggest the AOA should have gotten more. Of course, if it was up to the AOA to write much of the nearly 2,000 pages of the health overhaul legislation ourselves, some of the new law’s provisions would have been drafted differently.  But, the legislative process at the national level is highly competitive, and insurers and organized medicine opposed us at every step of the process. No one can deny the Harkin Amendment will expand patient access to optometric care and that the AOA – and the AOA alone – was at the table fighting for our members. Were you one of those doctors who helped?

Did you know the American Medical Association singled out the Harkin Amendment as one of the provisions of the 2010 health care overhaul law medical groups most want to repeal? In fact, they have called to “immediately condemn and work to repeal new Public Health Service Act Section 2706, the so-called provider ‘Non-Discrimination in Health Care Act.’”  And organized medicine isn’t alone. The health insurance industry is just as active in trying to repeal the Harkin patient access protections. The insurance industry is avoiding these same type of public announcements, but we know they’ve hired an army of lobbyists and have their sights set on limiting patient access to their local doctors of optometry. 

For the AOA, leading the fight against any and all types of discrimination against our members will continue be one of our highest priorities. But fighting back against the discriminatory efforts of health plans and organized medicine takes time, energy and resources. So I ask you: will you help? Getting started is easy. Ask an AOA volunteer how you can get involved or just pick up the phone and call your AOA. One of the most effective ways to fight for patients and the profession is to attend the AOA Congressional Advocacy Conference. This year it’s April 1-3 and may very well be one of the most critical conferences in recent years. While we’ve made some great strides in recent years, our work is far from over. With so much at stake, will you commit to being one of the doctors who helps? 

Hope to see you this April in the nation’s capital.

Dori Carlson, O.D.
AOA president

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