Do you know optometry’s advocacy priorities? Learn the issues before Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill
Entering year two of a global pandemic with new priorities and direction before the U.S. Congress, the AOA’s advocacy began earnestly addressing the immediate needs of optometry practices. But it’s your voice that will make the difference.
Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill, May 23-25, is that opportunity for advocacy-minded doctors, optometry students and paraoptometrics to voice optometry’s priorities and leave a lasting impression on members of Congress. The single-largest annual advocacy event and centerpiece of optometry’s federal advocacy efforts, Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill returns in a virtual format for 2021 with a goal of building upon what was a record-breaking-attended event in 2020 that helped solidify crucial opportunities and wins for optometry.
“Even in its virtual form, AOA on Capitol Hill keeps growing in attendance with engaged doctors, staff and students who come together from across the nation to ensure our essential advocacy program translates into effective advocacy on Capitol Hill,” says William T. Reynolds, O.D., AOA president. “With so much riding on our priority issues, at such a critical time in the pandemic response, we encourage those with a mind toward advocacy to log in and get involved.”
Register now for Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill.
Know before you go: AOA’s 3 priority issues for Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill
While the COVID-19 public health emergency and Congress’ potential response still loom large in Washington, D.C., the AOA identified three priority topics that optometry’s advocates will take to lawmakers during Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill, including:
- Secure COVID-19 relief, aid opportunities for struggling optometry practices.
Topping an already crowded agenda for the 117th U.S. Congress is consideration of the new Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package that includes several familiar federal relief options from previous iterations, including economic aid and vaccine assistance. Although congressional negotiations in the coming weeks are likely to change the exact details of any potential legislation, the AOA is focused on this important opportunity to fight for doctors of optometry still struggling from the pandemic.
In a letter to U.S. Senate and House leaders on Feb. 1, Dr. Reynolds thanked members of Congress for their critical support and relief efforts throughout COVID-19 but called on them to address optometry’s priorities in the new virus-relief bill taking shape, including renewed relief measures and formal recognition of optometry’s vaccination authority. As for the latter, Dr. Reynolds encouraged inclusion of optometry in the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act to ensure more communities could leverage optometry’s availability and ability to administer COVID-19 vaccines. Regarding the former, Dr. Reynolds pushed for measures that would help keep struggling practices viable as the pandemic enters its second year.
These measures include an extension of the Medicare sequester moratorium through the course of the public health emergency (the AOA recently joined a coalition of health care organizations calling for a moratorium extension); a guarantee that previous and new rounds of HHS Provider Relief Funds (PRF) aren’t deemed taxable income (as currently is the case); ensure new and continued aid options for optometry practices, including additional rounds of PRF, more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), and other federal relief opportunities; and further extension of the student loan payment deadline, as well as additional student debt relief and loan forgiveness measures.
As Congress shifts its undivided attention toward the next COVID-19 rescue package, the AOA will ensure lawmakers are aware of the ongoing struggles that optometry practices face while remaining on the frontlines of care throughout this ongoing pandemic.
- Curb health and vision plan policies that unnecessarily restrict doctors’ care.
To increasingly take the fight to health and vision plans, the AOA and optometry’s advocates will build upon the successful repeal of the insurer anti-trust exemption in late 2020 and encourage congressional support of AOA’s Dental and Optometric Care (DOC) Access Act.
In the waning days of 2020, Congress passed—and former President Trump signed—the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act (CHIRA) that essentially amended the McCarran-Ferguson Act to repeal the federal anti-trust exemption for health and dental insurance companies, in turn exposing these companies to federal antitrust scrutiny for the “business of health insurance.” The CHIRA should address some competition issues engrained in the insurance market and is likely to hone federal agencies’ attention on health insurance transactions, “such as network provider contracts, division of markets, cooperative negotiation by providers and/or insurers, or information sharing among competitors.”
The CHIRA came only weeks after a member of the U.S. House committee investigation into insurers skirting pandemic-related consumer protection laws turned his attention on vision plans in light of a “seeming financial windfall” for plans. In December, Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa, sent a letter to the nation’s major vision plans regarding questionable policies and practices enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rep. Loebsack argued that vision plans should be held to the same accountability and transparency requirements as health plans.
Such is the case, the AOA looks to capitalize on this momentum to demonstrate how vision plans likewise contribute to competition issues, contributing to a stagnate reimbursement environment and levying detrimental, unnecessary policies on optometry practices.
The DOC Access Act, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and with bipartisan congressional support, complements state-level vision plan laws by disallowing detrimental policies by ERISA and other federally regulated vision and health plans, namely, limits on doctors’ choice of labs, and mandates on noncovered services and materials. Additionally, the bill would limit plan contracts to two years—unless the doctor chooses to extend the contract for another term—as well as include a private right of action provision that allows doctors to take offending plans directly to court.
A magnet for opposition from plans’ lobbying groups, the DOC Access Act represents priority legislation for the AOA and optometry’s advocates in Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill meetings.
- Fix a broken prescription verification process and stop efforts to deregulate contact lenses.
Despite a chorus of patient health and safety experts, consumer advocates, and congressional leaders speaking against the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) proposed Contact Lens Rule amendments since 2016, commissioners chose to enact new requirements in the middle of a pandemic with little evidence to validate its necessity. Now, a movement by online contact lens retailers to deregulate the contact lens market and remove eye care providers entirely from patients’ contact lens care is coalescing with threatening comments echoed by commissioners themselves.
Such is the case, the AOA advocated for language in the historic, $2-trillion COVID-19 aid and government funding package at year’s end that effectively scolded the FTC over its decision to enact these new requirements at a precarious time in the nation’s COVID-19 response and directed the agency to delay enforcement of these changes. Recently, the AOA confirmed the FTC will abide by the Congressional directive and confirmed the agency will not take enforcement actions relative to the new rule changes until April 1, 2021.
The compliance delay represents a significant rebuke of the FTC’s handling of the Contact Lens Rule and an indication that the commission’s approach to the next once-per-decade review process will receive increased scrutiny at the start, especially if it seeks to deregulate or in any way diminish the status of contact lenses as medical devices. The AOA—which secured numerous modifications to the FTC’s initial 2015 proposal and supported more active Congressional oversight—will continue to defend doctors’ prescribing decisions and federal laws that safeguard contact lens patient health and safety.
Toward that end, the AOA will champion legislation aimed at fixing the broken contact lens prescription verification process, namely eliminating the use of automated ‘robocall’ verifications. The AOA repeatedly argues that robocall verifications are not an adequate, reliable form of communication and that more can be done to ensure direct communication between doctors and sellers. Although such changes were proposed in bipartisan-supported legislation aimed at modernizing the Contact Lens Rule in late 2020, a last-minute effort by online contact lens retailers and a deceptively named lobbying group that represents brick-and-mortar retailers, the National Association of Optometrists and Opticians (NAOO), created confusion among lawmakers and staff.
Backed by an NAOO letter that undermined optometry’s support in the Senate, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, strongly opposed the AOA-supported proposal during a Senate mark-up committee. The senator had previously proposed an amendment that favored deregulating the contact lens market altogether. These actions make it clear that online retailers’ end goal is to entirely diminish eye care providers’ role in contact lens health and safety and remove contact lenses as Food and Drug Administration-recognized medical devices.
With so much riding on these issues, the AOA is encouraging the profession to turn out for Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill and help move these priorities forward. Greater representation across the profession will help optometry’s advocates make a lasting impression while meeting with members of Congress—and that includes practice staff.
Linda Rodriguez, CPO, AOA Paraoptometric Resource Center chair, says there’s incredible benefit in involving paraoptometric staff in the legislative process, giving a sense of team-ownership in the profession’s advocacy and a chance to advocate for their own careers.
“As members of the optometric community, paraoptometrics will represent an added voice and multiply the efforts in advocating for optometry and its patients,” Rodriguez says. “Doctors of optometry who encourage their paraoptometrics’ attendance in this event will find that their participation will facilitate commitment, dedication and engagement in their role to further and safeguard the profession of optometry and its patients.”
These issues immediately affect optometry practices, their current viability and future prosperity, and require a unified voice on Capitol Hill to ensure the AOA’s success for optometry. Please consider registering yourself, and your practice staff, today.
What: Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill
When: Online sessions available at various times, May 23-25 (consult agenda for specific sessions)
Get a jump-start on Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill—visit the AOA’s Action Center to see what issues require members’ immediate attention and start writing your House and Senate members to urge their attention to optometry’s priorities. Or text “RELIEF” to 855.465.5124 to get involved in the current COVID-19 relief efforts.
For more information about Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill, agenda questions or the issues, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800.365.2219. Please note: Virtual meetings with members of Congress are pre-arranged and coordinated through state associations.
Last chance to register for Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill
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