Memo to Congress: Protect our kids’ vision

A young boy taking a vision exam. (Photo: GWImages, via Shutterstock)

California’s optometrists have a prescription for our members of Congress this year: Don’t lose sight of our children’s vision.

As discussions about the Affordable Care Act take center stage with a new President and new Congress in January, children’s vision is a prime example of the comprehensive and economically sound approach to health that is at risk if the ACA is repealed without a replacement.

While 80 percent of learning is done through the eyes, school vision screenings miss 1 of out of 3 children with significant vision and eye health problems.

Just three months ago, Anjelica, an 8-year-old in San Jose came into my clinic, unable to focus her eyes despite passing a school vision screening. She’d been placed in special education because she struggled to read. Her family’s enrollment under the ACA gave her the opportunity for her very first comprehensive eye exam, and my testing diagnosed what a school screening missed: farsightedness requiring special glasses with a very strong prescription. With her new eyeglasses, she’s no longer in special education classes and regaining her confidence in school.

The Affordable Care Act established a minimum set of ten essential health benefits for coverage in the new individual and small group marketplace. This included eye care for kids. These plans now cover eye exams and glasses for children, and this common sense rule has been transformational in the lives of my young patients, enabling them to arrive at school ready to learn. It’s also central in our broader fight against vision-damaging eye diseases.

Many parents don’t know how important it is for their child to get a regular eye exam. While 80 percent of learning is done through the eyes, school vision screenings miss 1 of out of 3 children with significant vision and eye health problems. The ACA means millions of California children now have the opportunity to gain eyeglasses and testing for eye diseases that can be addressed early rather than worsening as they age.

What’s more, our inclusion of children’s vision in all ACA plans was a major leap forward for a comprehensive view of health that saves money by investing in prevention.

Nationally, 30 million Americans stand to lose health care coverage if our health care is repealed. Five million Californians will likely go without the preventative and primary care necessary to prevent and manage eye-threatening conditions like diabetes, putting many at risk for reduced vision and even blindness.

Rather than repeal the ACA without a replacement, Washington DC should be looking to California as a model of effective ACA implementation. Doctors of Optometry are working through our California Optometric Association and the national American Optometric Association to build on the ACA’s success in California to expand access to eye care as part of a comprehensive vision for health.

There are lots of kids just like Anjelica who are counting the Congress to protect them. Reversing course now could imperil access to eye care for children throughout the country by taking us back to a time when eye care for kids wasn’t covered. Doctors of optometry are prepared to join California leaders in fighting to maintain our focus on health; our children are watching us.

Ed’s Note: David M. Redman, O.D, is legislative chair of the California Optometric Association.

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