AOA urges members to lobby for loan repayment bill at CAC

April 8, 2015
Optometry wants reinstatement into NHSC program.

AOA is urging members to join hundreds of doctors of optometry and students on Capitol Hill next week to fight for National Health Service Corps (NHSC) legislation. A healthy turnout is expected at AOA's 2015 Congressional Advocacy Conference on April 12-14.

"New graduates are not aware of these programs, and I think some would benefit."

Although doctors of optometry are often at the front lines of eye health and vision care, they've been excluded from the NHSC and other federal health programs open to other providers. AOA has long maintained that such exclusions bar access to essential eye health and vision care.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), a key member of the House Republican leadership, reintroduced a bill (H.R. 1312) on March 4 that would amend the Public Health Service Act to allow doctors of optometry to participate in the National Health Service Corps scholarship and loan repayment programs. AOA expects the Senate to introduce a bill in mid April.

The House bipartisan bill has six original co-sponsors, all of whom are members of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee. This includes Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who sponsored the legislation with Rep. McMorris Rodgers in the last Congress.

Support has been building on Capitol Hill for this legislation: in the last Congress, the NHSC bill had 145 co-sponsors, the highest level of co-sponsors yet for this legislation. In addition, report language in the final spending bill of the 113th Congress directed the federal government to evaluate the possibility of a demonstration project that would recognize doctors of optometry as primary care providers within NHSC.

Former students rally for bill

In the spring of 2014, Ann Morrison, O.D. and Jessica Giesey, O.D., went to Capitol Hill to lobby for this important bill, and place optometry graduates on a level playing field with other doctors.

The two graduates of Ohio State University's College of Optometry spoke of their future and the challenges of facing student debt last year (see AOA Focus, July/August 2014, p. 10). Each is hoping that future graduates can benefit from optometry's inclusion in the NHSC program.

"New graduates are not aware of these programs, and I think some would benefit," says Dr. Morrison, especially if they're not obligated to live in a certain part of the country and don't have a specific job lined up following graduation.

Dr. Giesey chose to work in Anchorage, Alaska, in a practice with six other doctors of optometry. "While the Anchorage metropolitan area isn't underserved, the city is a feeder for patients who live in rural communities," she says. Passage of the NHSC bill might motivate new graduates to work in rural areas and provide much needed care to these types of rural populations, she adds.

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