Hundreds of AOA advocates take to Capitol Hill
Optometry's advocates are making a real difference in the lives of patients and for the future of their profession. That was a key take-home message of the AOA's 2014 Congressional Advocacy Conference (CAC) in Washington, D.C.
Led by AOA President Mitchell T. Munson, O.D., President-elect David A. Cockrell, O.D., and the entire AOA Board of Trustees, attendees pressed lawmakers on optometry's top priorities, including:
- Full and fair implementation and enforcement of the new Harkin Law that bans health plans—including long-biased ERISA plans—from discriminating against ODs;
- Safeguarding continued full-physician status for doctors of optometry in Medicare and ensuring full-eligibility for new reform-based physician-level payment incentives; and
- Securing new Congressional co-sponsors to AOA-backed bills seeking fair treatment for ODs in Federal health programs (H.R. 855, H.R. 920/S. 1445).
This year's conference took place April 27-29 and drew more than 300 participants. AOA doctor and student volunteers used the CAC—optometry's largest annual gathering of advocacy leaders—to focus the national spotlight on the profession through visits to the offices of every U.S. Senator and House member and by playing key roles in a series of briefings and forums held around the nation's capital. (Click here to view pictures from the Congressional Conference)
A focus on pediatric care
A special summit highlighted a timely issue: the new pediatric essential eye health benefit, which launched earlier this year. The provision ensures that any parent who signs up for new insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as some plans outside of the law's marketplaces, gets access to annual comprehensive eye exams, materials, and treatment for their children.
"Optometry's Healthy Vision: The First 100 Days of Essential Pediatric Eye Health Coverage" examined the positive effects of the benefit, which is helping more children meet developmental milestones and find success in school. ODs who are seeing newly covered children were joined by members of Congress, officials from the U.S. Department of Education, children's health and education advocacy groups, and Jennifer Cross, M.D., a leading pediatrician.
Other conference highlights
Advocates met with their U.S. Senate and House members to encourage co-sponsorship of key AOA-backed bills seeking fair treatment for ODs in federal health programs. One bill, the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act (H.R. 920/S. 1445), would reinstate ODs into the NHSC student loan repayment and scholarship programs. The legislation's goals are two-fold, "placing ODs in underserved areas and helping to relieve massive student debt," said Terri Gossard, O.D., president-elect of the Ohio Optometric Association. Gossard led a group of ODs who met with Ohio's House and Senate delegation.
An AOA-led briefing on Capitol Hill explored optometry's leadership on improving care for patients with diabetes. Sponsored by the Diabetes Advocacy Alliance—composed of Novo Nordisk, the AOA, and other leading health groups—the briefing served as the Capitol Hill unveiling of new AOA evidence-based guidelines for eye care of the patient with diabetes mellitus. The AOA's Director of Clinical Resources Beth Kneib, O.D., discussed new challenges and opportunities with the roughly 50 Congressional staffers in attendance. Michael Duenas, O.D., the AOA's chief public health officer, covered policy implications.
A policy discussion on Medicare underscored the importance of replacing the program's sustainable growth rate payment formula. It also highlighted the need to ensure that any reform bill safeguards the continued full-physician status of ODs and ensures full-eligibility for new physician-level payment incentives going forward. The profession needs to reinforce with lawmakers that "we are physicians under Medicare. We provide medical eye care that helps diagnose, manage and treat chronic disease," said Roger Jordan, O.D., chair of the AOA Federal Relations Committee. After being updated on the long-string of AOA Medicare pay reform wins, advocates directly urged Congress take action later this year.
Seeking full and fair implementation of the Harkin Law, which prohibits discrimination against ODs, attendees urged their senators to join the law's lead champion, Sen. Tom Harkin, on a committee-level letter urging federal agency officials to scrap misleading and inaccurate sub-regulatory guidance now threatening the law's implementation. Although the AOA has already enlisted the help of leading members of Congress in this effort, a growing number of U.S. Senators are expected to join the fight as a direct result of AOA doctor and student advocacy.