Doctors of optometry obtain $2.1 billion in federal relief to blunt COVID-19 economic crisis

April 8, 2021
Even as doctors of optometry receive the much-needed funds, the AOA remains committed to advocating for optometry’s inclusion in federal crisis measures. Reminder: the deadline to apply for relief has been extended to May 31.
Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act

At a time when an economic lifeline was desperately needed by America’s primary eye care providers, doctors of optometry accessed over $2.1 billion in federal relief to help their practices overcome coronavirus-related hardships.

The AOA remains committed to advocating for optometry’s inclusion in federal crisis measures.

Provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law March 2020, federal relief provisions—including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) physician relief grants—have been a huge help to many optometry practices during the COVID-19 crisis, as doctors of optometry reported a 20-40% year-over-year reduction in patient visits.

As of March 31, 2021, the AOA estimates PPP loans and other physician relief funding combined have allocated an estimated $2,102,795,634 to thousands of doctors of optometry.

In more detail, the AOA says that 24,481 optometry practices received forgivable PPP loans with over 2,465 practices receiving loans of more than $150,000 for an estimated total of $791.9 million. More than 22,000 practices received loans of $150,000 or less for a total of $957.8 million.

Further, based on a survey by the AOA’s Health Policy Institute, it’s estimated that 73% of doctors of optometry who bill Medicare received an HHS physician relief grant—totaling an estimated $347.9 million. Factored as a 2% reported gross revenue from patient care, the physician relief grants averaged about $16,000 per eligible doctor of optometry, according to AOA estimates.

The AOA also helped doctors gain access to and make best use of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), federal student loan payment deferments and expanded Medicare telehealth provisions, due to the AOA’s advocacy to ensure optometry’s inclusion in the CARES Act and other federal relief measures, and the AOA’s multifaceted COVID-19 response.

“While the AOA and doctors of optometry were poised to make an incredible impact heading into 2020, the pandemic halted those plans” AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., says. “Yet the AOA, its affiliates and doctors pressed forward in the pandemic to deliver critical patient care and persevered.

“Because of our focused work and 24/7 advocacy, doctors have been able to access a significant amount of federal relief that ensures  communities across the country will continue to have access to essential primary eye and vision care,” Dr. Reynolds says.

PPP deadline extended

It’s not too late to access federal relief funding.

On March 30, President Joe Biden signed into law the PPP Extension Act of 2021, effectively extending the original March 31 deadline for first- and second-draw PPP applications to May 31 and affording the Small Business Administration (SBA) an additional 30 days beyond that to process those applications. The last-minute approval helps ensure some 190,000 pending PPP applications don’t expire with the impending deadline, especially after the administration made a dedicated push for small-business applications in the past several weeks. As of March 28, 8.7 million PPP loans had been approved, totaling $734 billion since 2020.

The AOA took immediate steps to ensure doctors of optometry have the best available information to take advantage of this extension.

In a March 31 letter addressed to SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman, the AOA reiterated its support for the congressional action to extend the PPP application deadline and requested the administration use this time to clarify ambiguities in the current rules, especially making clear HHS Provider Relief Funds be excluded in calculations of gross receipts for the purposes of second-draw PPP loans.

For many doctors, Provider Relief Funds received in April 2020 were used for personal protective equipment (PPE) and necessary office modifications for the health and safety of patients and staff. At that time, PPP regulations did not allow for use of funds for PPE given surging costs. However, while PPE has become more readily available, challenges remain in operating health care practices, as doctors continue to comply with safety protocols including limiting patient volume and additional cleaning time between patients.

The AOA requested the SBA explicitly state that Provider Relief Funds should be excluded from calculations of gross receipts, especially as several optometry practices’ second-draw PPP eligibility hinges on the matter.

“We believe clarifying this exclusion would allow for additional health care practices to qualify for [second-draw PPP loans] and provide those businesses with needed support to continue to thrive as we emerge from the pandemic and look forward to ongoing recovery,” the AOA letter reads.

Correcting the tax status of HHS Provider Relief Funds

Throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, the AOA has advocated for optometry’s ability to access crucial federal aid and relief opportunities. While these federal funds have been critical and much appreciated, the AOA contends that taxation on such relief money is counterproductive.

Already, the AOA successfully advocated for both PPP loans and EIDL grants to be considered tax-free, as well as expenses paid with those funds to be considered fully deductible. As it stands now, Provider Relief Funds are deemed taxable income and the AOA is adamant in finding a fix.

A reintroduced, bipartisan measure from Reps. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, Neal Dunn, R-Florida, and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, known as H.R. 2079, The Eliminating the Provider Relief Fund Tax Penalties Act of 2021, ensures such past and future funds provided in response to COVID-19 would not only be tax-free but also allow entities receiving these funds to maintain tax deductions attributable to these funds. Unfortunately, with so many high-profile issues under consideration in Congress, this matter faces substantial hurdles and requires urgent attention from the profession to gain consideration.

How can doctors of optometry help?

Take immediate action by visiting the AOA’s Action Center and contacting your members of Congress, or text “TAX” to 855.465.5124 to drive congressional support on this priority issue.

Doctors also can join optometry’s advocates at Virtual AOA on Capitol Hill, May 23-25, a remarkable opportunity for advocacy-minded doctors, optometry students and paraoptometrics to voice the profession’s priorities and leave a lasting impression on members of Congress. The AOA’s single-largest annual advocacy event, AOA on Capitol Hill returns in a virtual format for 2021 with a goal of building upon what was a record-breaking-attended 2020 event that helped solidify crucial opportunities and wins for optometry. Consider registering yourself and your practice today.

For more information about AOA on Capitol Hill, agenda questions or the issues, email or call 800.365.2219.

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