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AOA defends ODs against new attack on Harkin law

September 5, 2013

The AOA reacted swiftly in organizing opposition to a bill that would repeal the Harkin amendment on Capitol Hill and mobilized a friendly coalition of national organizations committed to defeating it.

Making good on its longstanding threat to try to refight the legislative battles it lost to the AOA in recent years over the new Harkin law, organized medicine turned to one of its own on Capitol Hill for a boost. Rep. Andrew Harris, M.D., of Maryland, an anesthesiologist serving his second term, introduced a bill to repeal to the landmark provider non-discrimination provision authored by Sen. Tom Harkin and enacted in 2010 as the first-ever federal ban on discrimination against ODs by health insurers, including EmployeeRetirement Income Security Act (ERISA) plans with a long history of bias.

Dr. Harris dubbed his bill the “Protect Patient Access to Quality Health Professionals Act of 2013,” which was designated as H.R. 2817. Although H.R. 2817 currently has no congressional co-sponsors, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Medical Association immediately released statements endorsing it.

“Whether anti-optometry groups like it or not, millions more Americans are gaining access to their local doctor of optometry because a new federal law we fought for specifically targets the discriminatory and anti-competitive practices of health plans,” said Mitchell T. Munson, O.D., AOA president. “Both Republicans and Democrats have supported us in the decades-long struggle to assure fairness and patient choice in the delivery of the essential health care services optometrists provide, and we’ll continue our efforts in Wash-ington, D.C., to ensure that continues. In fact, if we have to take on and defeat organized medicine all over again on this issue, then so be it.”

The Harkin law, hailed by its author and other supporters in Congress as a major advance in patient access and choice, targets health insurance plans – including large employer-sponsored programs organized under ERISA – that have at times made it policy to summarily deny coverage for the services of doctors of optometry and other health care providers in a purported effort to contain costs. These unfair and outdated policies are a boon for medical doctors who enjoy the financial benefits of restricted competition from non-MD providers.

Medical groups and insurers fought the Harkin law at each step of a nearly two-year legislative process and gradually more so in recent months as federal agencies have prepared for full implementation. Nevertheless, the Harkin law remains on track to provide consumers with greater access to local optometrists of their choice.

Just days after the Harkin law was passed, the American Academy of Ophthalmology sponsored a resolution for the American Medical Association’s governing body stating, “Resolved, that our American Medical Association immediately condemn and work to repeal [the Harkin Law] through active direct and grassroots lobbying…”

“Although there continues to be some confusion and even disagreement among ODs about how significant a leap forward the Harkin law is for us, it is very clear that our opponents have no doubt it’s a game-changer in health care and they intend to go all out to de-rail it,” Dr. Munson added. “The AOA is ready, willing and able to fight back, and we’ll be taking further action through our Advocacy Super Conference in Washington, D.C., in September, which will be focused again on winning for our profession, our practices and our patients.”

Watch Sen. Harkin accept the 2013 AOA Apollo Award at www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkcdSn-MLbo.

AOA members interested in more information about attending the upcoming AOA Advocacy Super Conference in Washington, D.C., supporting AOA-PAC, joining the Federal Keyperson program, or getting in contact with a representative in Congress to speak out on H.R. 2817 and other AOA priorities can contact Jon Hymes at 800-365-2219 or jfhymes@aoa.org.

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