U.S. Senate leader introduces AOA-backed NHSC optometric inclusion bill

April 30, 2012

With backing from the AOA and the Arkansas Optometric Association, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has introduced into the U.S. Senate key legislation that would provide desperately needed access to primary eye and vision care services in underserved communities throughout Arkansas and across the nation.

Introduced March 15, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Improvement Act of 2012 (S. 2192) would make doctors of optometry eligible, once again, for the NHSC student loan repayment and scholarship program.

The Senate bill mirrors companion legislation (H.R. 1195) sponsored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) now under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Eye doctors often graduate with a mountain of student loan debt, forcing them to work in private practice or urban communities,” Sen. Pryor said. “This legislation opens the opportunity for an optometrist to fill a real need. With on-site vision services at community health centers, children in Arkansas are more likely to receive proper eye care, be able to see the blackboard in the classroom and do better in school as a result.”

Overall, the NHSC program aims to provide improved access to quality health care services for millions of Americans who might otherwise be forced to do without or delay care until conditions become emergencies.

As part of this mission, the program provides financial support specifically aimed at easing the debt burden associated with a professional education and allows carefully selected clinicians to undertake an extraordinary, multi-year commitment to safeguarding public health.

Unfortunately, when the program was restructured in 2002, optometrists were no longer eligible to participate in the program.

Since that time, the situation facing working men and women, children and seniors in underserved areas that are in need of primary eye and vision care has only grown more urgent.

Today, only 11 percent of community health centers nationwide have full-time eye care professionals on staff and less than one-third even offer any on-site vision services, according to a 2009 report by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

The report recognizes the lack of access to eye care services through health centers as a “major public health crisis in America.”

Supported by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, O.D., (R-Ark.), Community Health Centers of Arkansas, Inc., and others, the effort would not expand any federal program or authorize any new federal funding. The legislation now before Congress seeks only to allow optometrists to compete for loan repayment and scholarship support on a level playing field under existing requirements.

“With the recognition that primary eye care is a critical component in the health care delivery system, but not often found in underserved communities, Senator Pryor’s legislation will expand the list of eligible health care providers who may apply for NHSC Loan Repayment and Scholarships,” said Sip Mouden, chief executive officer of Community Health Centers of Arkansas, Inc. “Once enacted, optometrists will be eligible to apply for NHSC loan repayment, and in return, will pay back those loans by providing primary eye care in underserved and rural communities.”

In the opening days of April, a record-number of AOA doctors and students descended on the nation’s capital for the 2012 Congressional Advocacy Conference.

Bringing the AOA’s pro-access, pro-patient message to nearly every House and Senate office on Capitol Hill, ODs and students urged their elected leaders to back S. 2192, H.R. 1195, as well as Medicaid full inclusion for ODs legislation (H.R. 1219), and a number of other AOA priorities.

Sen. Pryor’s full announcement on the introduction of the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act can be found at http://bit.ly/H8QWig.

To learn about becoming more involved in federal advocacy, contact the AOA Washington Office at 800-365-2219 or ImpactWashingtonDC@aoa.org.

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