ODs, students advocate for inclusion in loan repayment program
Ann Morrison, O.D., recently graduated from The Ohio State University's College of Optometry with big plans for the future—and more than $200,000 in student debt.
"They know more about eyes and vision care than anyone else, and they can convey that information to the lawmakers."
Ability to pay off this debt is one major reason why Dr. Morrison and hundreds of other student advocates and volunteer doctors met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill during the AOA's Congressional Advocacy Conference in late April. They want their respective delegates to co-sponsor a bill (H.R. 920/S. 1445) that would reinstate ODs into the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) student loan repayment and scholarship programs.
The legislation's goals are twofold, "placing ODs in underserved areas and helping to relieve massive student debt," said Terri Gossard, O.D., president-elect of the Ohio Optometric Association. Dr. Gossard led a group of ODs, including Dr. Morrison, to meet with more than a dozen House and Senate members on April 27. Several of these lawmakers had a tie-in with the optometry field or, like Rep. Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M., can relate to optometry's key policy issues. As a podiatrist, Dr. Wenstrup's profession faces similar challenges related to parity and recognition, Dr. Gossard explains.
Bill would end ODs' omission from program
According to Dr. Gossard, ODs were initially included in the NHSC program, but later taken out. "However, with the increased demand for vision care services within community health centers due in part to the diabetes epidemic and new pediatric vision benefit, optometric services need to be reinstated," she observes.
Dr. Morrison in particular is interested in working with children in underserved areas, especially now that pediatric eye health care is considered an "essential health benefit" under the Affordable Care Act.
Jessica Giesey, O.D., another recent graduate from The Ohio State's College of Optometry, feels like she got through to some of the younger congressional aides she met with on the Hill about the NHSC bill. Many are her age, and they understand what it's like to have student loans, she says.
Dr. Gossard hopes issues such as inclusion in the Health Service Corps will see resolution as early as next year. If not, she plans to return to Capitol Hill to push for the NHSC bill and other legislation such as the Optometric Equity in Medicaid Act (H.R. 855), which would fully recognize ODs as Medicaid providers of physician services.
What students can bring to the table in these visits is the fresh knowledge from their training in optometry school, Dr. Gossard says. "They know more about eyes and vision care than anyone else, and they can convey that information to the lawmakers so they can get the right information."