AOA mobilizes for doctors in national response to pandemic
The AOA has moved quickly to mobilize its public awareness, advocacy and clinical resources in support of its member doctors and their practices in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which is already inflicting harm on the national economy.
In focused messaging to the public, the media and government policymakers, the AOA is relentlessly spotlighting optometry's essential care physician role and the importance of optometry practices nationwide to alleviate growing stress on hospital emergency departments. In recent days, the AOA issued immediate patient care guidance, secured full recognition for doctors of optometry in federal crisis relief legislation and delivered updated billing and coding briefing to thousands of doctors seeking to continue to provide care as the nation implements community-spread countermeasures, including the closure of schools, businesses and institutions.
"Together with our state associations, the AOA is fighting harder than ever for our doctors, and we will not stop," AOA President Barbara L. Horn, O.D., says. "Although it's an uncertain time for each of us and for our patients, member doctors can and should count on the AOA to deliver critical practice support and ensure optometry's full recognition in crisis relief and the recovery that will follow." "Members should take action today," Dr. Horn says. "We need to make sure optometry is heard loud and clear, so that there are no disruptions in the essential care to the public that doctors of optometry provide each day. Optometric practices must be included in all physician-level and small-business crisis relief provisions now being readied to be voted on."
What can members do?
Doctors, optometry students and optometric staff are being urged to contact their U.S. senators (202.224.3121) to secure support for AOA's proposals recognizing the extreme challenges doctors of optometry are facing. Please use these talking points to contact your senators today and then update the AOA advocacy team in Washington, D.C.
AOA making a difference
On March 11, the AOA reported on another AOA-backed relief package by Congress. The package contained language that recognized optometry's full inclusion in federal health legislation. The sweeping March 6 relief package for $8.3 million, signed by President Trump, set aside funding for lab tests, vaccine research and general outbreak response, including directives aimed at providing physicians with authority and reimbursement mechanisms through Medicare for remote and telehealth services to their patients.
Throughout bill negotiations, the AOA worked to ensure doctors of optometry were recognized as physicians and included as qualified providers under the bill's expanded efforts to provide remote patient care and in a new program to provide relief to small businesses.
The AOA-backed, small-business provision in the first relief package signed into law resulted in new and expanded low-interest federal disaster loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA). The loans can be used for paying fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other expenses due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The SBA will begin offering states and private, nonprofit organizations in designated areas or territories their economic injury due to COVID-19. To be eligible, a state's governor must submit a request for Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance.
Once a declaration is made within a state, loans will be made available to affected communities. The AOA will assist in making sure the information is shared among members. The program will offer loans up to $2 million at an interest rate of 3.75% for small businesses without credit available elsewhere. Businesses with credit from other sources are not eligible.
The AOA is continuing work to bring even more relief for struggling optometry practices.
What doctors need to know about Congress' second relief bill
This week, lawmakers approved a second COVID-19 relief package largely focused on providing workers with expanded protections. The effort is aimed at keeping workers healthy without businesses taking on additional costs. Every employer who provides paid leave is expected to be fully reimbursed for the cost of both wages and health insurance premiums in no more than three months.
Qualified sick leave wages
Businesses with fewer than 500 employees will be required to pay up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave to full-time employees (pro-rata rules apply to part-time employees) who are out to self-quarantine, seek a diagnosis or preventive care, or receive treatment for COVID-19. Eligible full-time employees (pro-rata rules apply to part-time employees) are entitled to 80 hours paid time off at two-thirds of their regular pay to care for a family member or to care for a child whose school has closed, or if their child care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19.
Employers will initially front the cost of emergency paid sick leave but will be fully reimbursed by the federal government within three months. The reimbursement will cover both the wages paid and the employer's contribution to employee health insurance premiums during the period of leave. Employers will be reimbursed through a refundable tax credit that counts against employers' payroll tax, which all employers pay regardless of nonprofit/for-profit status. Employers will submit emergency paid sick leave expenses as part of their estimated quarterly tax payments. If employers' costs more than offset their tax liability, they will get a refund from the IRS.
Qualified family leave wages
Eligible full-time employees and part-time employees are entitled to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to take care for their children in the event of a school closure or their child care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19. The 12 weeks of job-protected leave include two weeks of unpaid leave, followed by 10 weeks of paid leave. Eligible employees may elect or be required to overlap the initial two weeks of unpaid leave with two weeks of other paid leave they have available. Eligible employees will receive a benefit from their employers that will be no less than two-thirds of the employee's usual pay.
Employers initially front the cost of emergency paid family leave but will be fully reimbursed by the federal government within three months. The reimbursement will cover both the wages paid and the employer's contribution to employee health insurance premiums during the period of leave. Employers will be reimbursed through a refundable tax credit that counts against employers' payroll tax, which all employers pay regardless of nonprofit/for-profit status. Employers will submit emergency paid family expenses as part of their estimated quarterly tax payments. If employers' costs more than offset their tax liability, they will get a refund from the IRS.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees may be able to qualify for a narrow exemption if the Department of Labor determines that providing these benefits would jeopardize the viability of the business.
Access to capital
According to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, the administration is in the process of working on a regulation to allow some businesses who have large amounts of their workforce out to take the tax credit in advance. This is to ensure that businesses have enough payroll cash on hand to meet the leave requirements.
AOA provides COVID-19 guidance
The AOA continues to closely monitor developments and actively participate in U.S. public health discussions to date regarding the COVID-19 response to keep optometry informed of the latest information. Doctors of optometry need not only understand the risks and current public health situation related to COVID-19 but also have the latest clinical recommendations and guidance for informed patient care.
On March 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health reminder with recommendations aimed to prioritize urgent and emergency visits and procedures in its continued efforts to stem the COVID-19 outreach. The AOA swiftly provided guidance to doctors of optometry.
The AOA recommends that doctors of optometry be aware of the COVID-19 situation in their communities and be mindful of the commonly understood characteristics of this virus, as well as patient exposure risk and how optometric practices should respond.
For additional information and resources on COVID-19, visit AOA's COVID-19 webpage.
A limited-time, members-only course offers an introduction to professional advocacy as optometry’s advocates gear up for Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill, May 23-25.
Momentum builds on Capitol Hill for a permanent expansion of Medicare telehealth criteria—find out how optometry’s advocates are approaching the conversation.
Although Congressional action staved off an immediate 2% cut to providers’ Medicare payments this year, attention now shifts to additional cuts mandated by federal spending controls.