AOA board leads key summer advocacy efforts in nation’s capital

August 22, 2012

To further solidify the AOA’s recognition in 2012 as one of the most respected and effective lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C., AOA leaders spent this summer pressing federal officials in nearly every corner of the nation’s capital for even greater support for optometry’s top priorities.

In late July, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center officials hosted AOA President Ron Hopping, O.D., MPH, to recognize optometry’s essential role in caring for America’s wounded warriors.

From left, Executive Director of the Defense Department/ Veterans Affairs Department Vision Center of Excellence Col. Donald Gagliano, M.D., AOA President Ron Hopping, O.D., MPH, and Maj. Jeffrey Autrey, O.D., meet to discuss advances in caring for veterans.

The group, led by Dr. Hopping and Maj. Jeffrey Autrey, O.D., vice president of the Armed Forces Optometric Society, met with Col. Donald Gagliano, M.D., executive director of the Defense Department/ Veterans Affairs (VA) Department Vision Center of Excellence (VCE) and others to discuss recent advances in caring for wounded servicemen and women.

Military health officials have estimated that up to 22 percent of all U.S. casualties between 2002 and 2010 have suffered eye injuries or trauma and, in addition to eye casualties, 75 percent of warriors suffering traumatic brain injury (TBI) have associated vision dysfunction.

To help fully coordinate the efforts of the military and veterans’ health systems in providing the full range of eye health and vision care to wounded warriors, then-Rep. John Boozman, O.D., (now a U.S. senator from Arkansas) led the successful 2008 effort to establish the VCE to coordinate improved eye health and vision care, assess the prevalence of eye injuries and track wounded servicemember care and rehabilitation.

Earlier this year, the VCE moved into its new facility at the nation’s flagship military hospital in Bethesda, Md., and is preparing a report to Congress.

On behalf of hundreds of dedicated military, VA and civilian optometrists involved in care of wounded servicemembers, Dr. Hopping accepted a commemorative VCE “challenge coin” presented by Col. Gagliano.

On the political front, Dr. Hopping and AOA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Loomis, O.D., braved the sweltering Washington, D.C., summer heat to discuss key issues facing patients and the profession with sitting U.S. senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and AOA-backed candidates for Congress.

In valuable time spent with his home-state senator, Dr. Loomis discussed key eye and vision care issues with Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado.

AOA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Loomis, O.D., and Oklahoma congressional candidate Jim Bridenstine (R).

Soon after, the AOA leader met with Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), a member of the House committees overseeing military and veterans’ health care (and a former offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles), and Oklahoma congressional candidate Jim Bridenstine (R), the victor in a June primary campaign against Rep. John Sullivan, the sponsor of legislation attacking optometry.

That same afternoon, Dr. Hopping also met with Ohio congressional candidate Brad Wenstrup, DPM, (R), an AOA-backed contender who stands to become the first podiatrist in Congress.

AOA Trustee Barb Horn, O.D., was also busy in late July covering both sides of Capitol Hill.

Dr. Horn delivered a series of detailed briefings on children’s vision and the need to ensure that the pediatric vision essential benefit – which health plans will be required to offer starting in 2014 – will be based on an annual comprehensive eye exam, treatment and follow-up care.

Since the enactment of the health reform law, AOA doctors and staff have been meeting with top White House and other officials directly, and in large public “listening sessions” around the country, to press for a benefit based on direct access to optometric care.

AOA staffer Alicia Kerry Jones (left) joined Dr. Horn in meetings on both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sides of the Capitol.

At the same time, insurers, organized medicine and other groups with an anti-optometry agenda have actively sought a screening-based benefit and tried to impose limits on patient access to ODs.

Due to the efforts of Dr. Horn and other AOA volunteer leaders, optometry’s supporters in Congress, and AOA’s clear success in being heard in the regulatory process, optometric care is a key step closer to being recognized as essential at the federal level.

But ongoing federal and state advocacy are still needed to ensure the new benefit will not be downgraded for the millions of newly insured Americans, including 9 million to 10 million children who previously did not have health insurance, much less coverage for vision care.

Also in July, AOA Trustees Hilary Hawthorne, O.D., and Bill Reynolds, O.D., led an AOA delegation, including Jan Cooper, O.D., chair of the AOA Health Center Committee, and AOA staffers, to meet with high-ranking officials of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on the role of optometrists in delivering essential eye and vision health care.

With Medicaid set to expand significantly as the 2010 health care overhaul law is implemented, the AOA has been pressing the CMS to take steps to assure full recognition of optometric services.

With nearly 20 million Americans expected to gain new coverage through the Medicaid program expansion, AOA leaders made clear that federal officials and insurers must better recognize the central role that optometrists play in the delivery of primary and preventive care if the planned expansion is to work.

The group made clear, however, that while optometrists currently provide the vast majority of primary eye care in Medicaid, bureaucrats and insurers are imposing their own discriminatory restrictions on patient care and, ultimately, are driving up costs.

From left to right: AOA staffer Rodney Peele, Esq.; Jan Cooper, OD, chair of the AOA Health Center Committee; AOA Trustee, Bill Reynolds, OD; Stephen Cha, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Center for Medicaid; AOA Trustee, Hilary Hawthorne, OD; and AOA staffer, Michael Duenas, OD.

While the Medicare program has relied on optometrists for physician services for 25 years, policymakers need to ensure that Medicaid beneficiaries have the same access to covered medical eye care.

For more information or to learn how you can become more involved in federal advocacy, including through the AOA Keyperson program or by becoming an AOA-PAC investor, contact the AOA Washington office at 800-365-2219 or ImpactWashingtonDC@aoa.org.

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