Congress’ spending bill addresses optometry’s priorities
The final spending bill of the 113th Congress contains a number of optometry-backed measures—reflecting the impact of AOA advocacy work on Capitol Hill.
"Congress is listening and will be increasingly relying on AOA to solve these problems."
On Dec. 16, President Obama signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through next fall. The legislation and related report language contain several provisions that affect the profession. They fund vision care in community health centers and call for optometric inclusion in the National Health Service Corps. The language also calls for stronger enforcement of the AOA-backed provider nondiscrimination provision known as the Harkin law.
The fact that lawmakers addressed these provisions "clearly shows that Congress is listening and will be increasingly relying on AOA to solve these problems," says Roger Jordan, O.D., chair of the AOA Federal Relations Committee. "It also shows that we have much more work to do as we begin the 114th Congress."
Major spending highlights:
- The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will receive $350 million so community health centers can expand access points to vision and other health services. Similar action in last year's bill led to health centers across the country adding new optometry services or expanding existing OD capacity.
- The legislation allocates more than $684 million to the National Eye Institute (NEI). The bill would require NEI to provide an update on cures related to certain blindness-inducing illnesses and vision research in the fiscal year 2016 budget request.
- Congress also included $10 million for the Department of Defense for the Vision Trauma Research Program.
What the report language does
Report language that accompanies the bill does not have the binding force of law. But it does reflect the wishes of Congress and can be instrumental in guiding federal agency planning. The language:
- Directs HRSA "to evaluate the establishment of a demonstration project within the National Health Service Corps in which doctors of optometrys are recognized as primary health services providers." The AOA has long advocated for the passage of H.R. 920, to end exclusion of doctors of optometry from this program, increasing their access in underserved urban and rural areas.
- Admonishes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for not complying with a directive to correct the agency's interpretation of the Harkin law in its "Frequently Asked Questions" on the law. This provision has led to increased access of medical eye care among autoworkers and workers in other industries.
- Acknowledges the link between healthy vision in children and their school readiness. Specifically, it encourages the Department of Education "to raise awareness of the need to identify children with poor vision and promote options for children from low-income families to acquire prescription eyeglasses."
A Call to Action
Congress’ Sept. 15 deadline for bill language passes with lawmakers backing key guardrails that AOA’s advocates say must be in place for a workable benefit. Yet, price tag developments may forestall efforts.
A September deadline means now is the time for AOA members to act. Attend an upcoming special advisory group session for the latest legislative information and contact your members of Congress.
The AOA continues its support of optometry students, advocating for a temporary suspension of student loan debt due to the pandemic, as well as a long-term avenue toward loan forgiveness and repayment.