AOA president: Successes amid very turbulent year

December 10, 2020
In an address to AOA’s House of Delegates Dec. 3, AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., described not only the challenges faced by members, but also how they persevered over the pandemic, social reckoning and a turbulent political season.
House of Delgates recap

The year 2020 didn’t go exactly as expected—given the COVID-19 crisis, social unrest and a turbulent election, AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., said in his state-of-the-profession address at the virtual 123rd Annual AOA Congress on Dec. 3.

It was supposed to be optometry’s year—the Year of the Eye Exam. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed, and the AOA and affiliates quickly pivoted to ensure doctors of optometry were able to continue to provide much-needed and safe care to patients, Dr. Reynolds said.

“AOA has adapted, and we are now set to move forward and accomplish even more for the profession,” he said.

For instance, Dr. Reynolds reported that the AOA Board of Trustees worked quickly to identify short-term and long-term ways the organization could help set up doctors for relief and future recovery. In March, with the pandemic intensifying, the AOA and affiliates announced a crisis relief and recovery plan. The plan included: 

  • Immediate AOA dues relief—All AOA dues waived for two months for all members.
  • Dues and assessment freeze—AOA membership dues and assessment to be maintained at current levels at least through 2021.
  • Direct program reprioritization—The AOA has dedicated an organization-wide response to the immediate crisis-related concerns of doctors and affiliates, extending all AOA advocacy activities (federal, state, payer and media), communications, AOAExcel®, practice tools and more.
  • Direct affiliate support—The AOA established a $500,000 fund to assist distressed affiliates.
  • Long-term relief for doctors—The AOA set up an AOA Foundation Optometry Recovery Fund to aid optometry practices, in partnership with industry friends.

Finding success amid turbulence

The AOA and affiliates have persevered in other ways, Dr. Reynolds said.

They have been relentless advocates for doctors, helping them qualify for government relief funds, as well as providing members and students with the resources needed to get through the crisis. “During the past several months, tens of thousands of doctors, both members and nonmembers, have joined AOA webinars covering a range of urgent, crisis-related concerns and used tools available on aoa.org/coronavirus,” he said. “This included critical information enabling doctors to secure ($1.69 billion) in relief funds.”

The AOA continues to remain an advocacy force in Washington, D.C., recently recognized among The Hill’s annual list of top lobbyists.

Doctors of optometry stepped up to provide essential care. In March, when the CDC issued guidance that suddenly limited doctors’ care to only urgent and emergent, doctors provided critical services to more than 206,000 patients in a one-month period.

“The care doctors of optometry provided significantly reduced overcrowding in emergency rooms all across the country,” Dr. Reynolds said. “We should all be proud of how the AOA and the entire profession responded during this time of crisis. With the possibility of an effective vaccine becoming a reality, AOA and our affiliates are working with state authorities to ensure doctors of optometry are fully recognized for their primary eye care provider role and included among the Phase 1a distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

He added, “We also recognize that doctors are well-positioned to increase the public’s access to these critical immunizations. While some states, such as Kentucky and California, permit doctors of optometry to provide vaccinations, the current public health crisis has prompted policy leaders to recommend that states evaluate and expand their health care teams with regard to providing vaccinations.​”

Other successes:

  • The Federal Trade Commission continued to attack the profession with its amendment to the Contact Lens Rule. The rule mandated costly and unnecessary new paperwork and record-keeping, but the AOA is pushing back. ​While the rule went into effect in October, the AOA-backed Contact Lens Rule Modernization Act was introduced in September and is meant to eliminate the FTC’s new paperwork mandate and ban robocalls to doctors’ offices by online retailers. There are currently 17 co-sponsors of the bill and we need more,” Dr. Reynolds said. To make sure the AOA’s voice is heard, he encouraged members to utilize the AOA’sAction Center or text ‘FTCFix’ to 855.465.5124 or send an urgent written message to your senators.
  • An important tool in advancing eye care is the just adopted, updated AOA telemedicine in optometry policy.” Developed by our Telehealth Council with input from colleagues from across the profession, health care policy experts and industry leaders, this updated policy reflects advances in artificial intelligence and new technologies, while positioning us to continue to fully safeguard the standard of care,” Dr. Reynolds said. It also comes at a critical time, as current vision apps have become even more aggressive during the pandemic and have used the opportunity to intercept patients and undermine patient care, he added.
  • The bipartisan Dental and Optometric Care Access (DOC Access) Act, which takes on abuses by vision plans, now has a new Senate companion. Introduced in November by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., the Act aims to put doctors and patients back in control of important health care decisions. The bill, also backed by the American Dental Association, was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Health, where it awaits further consideration.
  • A win on the optometric scope front was the removal of the misguided Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy banning doctors of optometry-from performing laser procedures. Replaced by a pathway for doctors to demonstrate competency and to acquire laser procedure privileges in VA facilities, Dr. Reynolds said, “this has been a very long, hard battle and our nation’s veterans will soon benefit from expanded optometric care. ​”
  • At a time of national reckoning on racial injustice, the AOA took the opportunity to assess ways it can do more when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The AOA established a board-level task force to identify and activate strategies to ensure increased diversity in optometry, including in the AOA volunteer and leadership structure. “Since the development of this task force, we have taken steps as an organization and engaged with others across the profession to make a difference,” Dr. Reynolds said.
  • He announced the launch of a new nationwide awareness campaign, See and Be Seen. The campaign will reinforce the care doctors of optometry deliver and their role as health care providers. “We are going to break through and connect with patients, motivating them with stories about the care doctors of optometry deliver in the channels they are going to, from social media to their local news outlets,” he says. The AOA will brief affiliate staff and leaders this month on the campaign. 

“There is no doubt 2020 has been a difficult year,” Dr. Reynolds said. “But the work we did this year cemented the power we have to overcome odds and work together for the betterment of our profession and for patient care. I am excited about 2021. I’m excited about the future of our profession. I’m excited about the future of AOA.”

House of Delegates Speaker for the meeting, Samuel L. Pierce, O.D., noted that 2020 would go down in the AOA’s annals as one of its most difficult in the profession.

“Very few will ever appreciate the difficult work that fell on the shoulders of the AOA Board of Trustees,” says Dr. Pierce, who asked the House of Delegates to unmute and led them in a round of applause. “As a past president and a member of the American Optometric Association, you have my appreciation for all you’ve done.”

Under the good and welfare section of the agenda, the House of Delegates heard a resolution in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Armed Forces Optometric Society and its founding members.

A number of members were announced as 20-21 candidates for the Board of Trustees, including Belinda Starkey, Arkansas, for trustee; James P. DeVleming, Washington, for president-elect; Ronald L. Benner, Montana, for vice president; Steven T. Reed, Mississippi, for secretary-treasurer; Jacqueline M. Bowen, Colorado, for trustee; and Teri K. Geist, Nebraska, for trustee.

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