In January, Arol Augsburger, O.D., got a call from the Illinois Optometric Association (IOA) asking him to appeal to a state senator to support a bill that would prohibit health plans from forcing discounts on ODs for noncovered services.
You can’t emphasize too much what a regulated profession optometry is, and regulated activity means you have to always be diligent.
Dr. Augsburger called the senator's office and had an answer three minutes later: "Absolutely Doc, whatever you say."
If lawmakers know and trust an expert in the community, "it's much more likely that they're going to be supportive of something that they believe is the right thing for the citizens," Dr. Augsburger says.
Recognized as Optometrist of the Year in three states, Dr. Augsburger has been described as an "advocacy superhero" by his peers. In 2013 alone, he had more than 80 meetings with local, state and federal officials.
In this excerpt from a Q&A in the March edition of AOA Focus, pages 16 to 17, Dr. Augsburger discusses his advocacy achievements—and why it's important for optometry to stay on top of legislative developments at the state and federal level.
What have been your greatest successes as an advocate for optometry?
I've been fortunate to be involved in advocacy in three different states. In working with the Ohio, Alabama and Illinois optometric associations, changing key laws that have broadened the inclusiveness of optometrists using pharmaceuticals in the diagnosis and treatment of patients is probably the single biggest impact I've had.
Each of those states has updated their laws for broader use of drugs for not only diagnosing but also treating patients' problems. At this time, all 50 states have accomplished this.
What are the biggest upcoming challenges for optometry with the ACA?
Although the legislation of the Affordable Care Act has been passed and the pediatric eye care benefit is a mandated service, the devil's in the details: the making of the rules, how optometry patients are going to have access to this care, and how optometrists are going to participate in this. Watching that and being part of that evolution of the rules is going to be very, very critical. If it doesn't go the way we want it to go, it may require some legislative intervention.
Related to that is making sure that there are opportunities to be paid at a reasonable rate for those services. That is very important, too.
What else is important in federal legislation?
The National Health Service Corps [legislation] to include optometrists is something we've been working on for many years. That one is especially dear to me because many of our students want to serve in underserved areas of our cities or rural areas that are designated as federal poverty areas. If optometrists were included in the National Health Service Corps and practiced in these areas, portions of their debt for going to school would be forgiven. That would be a huge breakthrough for those communities mostly, but certainly secondarily for those graduating optometrists. Right now they can't afford to practice in many of those areas because of their huge debt.
What advocacy advice do you have for your fellow optometrists?
You can't emphasize too much what a regulated profession optometry is, and regulated activity means you have to always be diligent. We're fortunate that in the last 40 years the rules and regulations have largely gone optometry's way, but it hasn't been because we've sat back and watched it. It's because so many people were involved in it.
But it could easily go the other way if we don't stay diligent and in contact with all of our people at the local, state and national level as well as our program administrators.
Optometrists throughout the country have been outstanding at building those key networks, so that access to elected representatives is there.
Register for AOA's Congressional Advocacy Conference, April 27 through April 29, in Washington, D.C. Sign up online, and join colleagues in securing optometry's gains made in Medicare payment reform over the past year—among other legislative priorities.
Photograph by Krystina Archer