Health centers to expand services with $500 million grants
Community health centers (CHCs) nationwide received significant grant funding to expand primary care offerings, including eye care, at a time when growth in vision services is trending upward.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced $500 million in new Health Center Expanded Services funds on Sept. 15, with an aim toward bolstering care services, patient access and facility upgrades at more than 1,300 CHCs, and increasing care to an additional 1.4 million Americans across every state.
Lillian T. Kalaczinski, O.D., AOA Health Center Committee chair, says inclusion of vision services in this most recent round of funding indicates that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) recognizes the importance of on-site eye care, as do the CHCs themselves.
Overall, vision services grew by 6% among CHCs in 2015 thus far, HRSA reported during the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) Community Health Institute (CHI) meeting in August. And additional expanded services funding could be in the works for 2016, as well.
"That is why AOA members must reach out to health centers now to start a conversation about adding vision services in the future," Dr. Kalaczinski says.
"There continues to be steady growth of vision services within health centers. But start-up costs for a new service are a major barrier for a health center to overcome, which is why the inclusion of vision services in HRSA expanded services grants is so important. These grants give interested health centers an opportunity to cover some of the start-up costs."
Learn how to get involved with CHCs.
Opportunities in CHCs' vision services
Partnering with the NACHC, AOA has advocated and worked toward improving access to eye and vision care services at CHCs. Such services have been greatly underrepresented in the past, representing a unique opportunity to build an entirely new career path for doctors of optometry interested in public health.
Last year, AOA was successful in advocating for measures in a spending bill that led to $350 million in HRSA funds for expanding CHCs' access to vision and other health services, and reiterated the necessity for ending doctors' of optometry exclusion from the National Health Service Corps.
AOA representation at the NACHC CHI meeting over the past eight years has also helped heighten interest in expanding vision services. Although the total number of eye examinations provided in CHCs is still small, proportional to medical or dental exams, AOA members can feel proud of the significant increase in awareness of the importance of eye care within agencies, such as HRSA and NACHC, and among CHC administrators and clinicians, Dr. Kalaczinski says.
"The conversation has moved from, 'why should a health center add vision services,' to, 'how can we add vision services,'" she says. "This progress is a direct result of the AOA's commitment to decreasing barriers to eye care among the vulnerable populations cared for in health centers."
Doctors interested in working with a CHC should reach out now and inquire if the CHC received expanded services grant funding for adding vision services, Dr. Kalaczinski says. Use the current attention devoted to the HHS grants to spark a conversation and build toward a future expanded services grant application.
The AOA will use the time to evaluate its collection efforts and create a registry for the future that is most useful to improving eye health and vision care. The AOA launched the registry in 2015.
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Under new rules for the 21st Century Cures Act, doctors of optometry will need to prepare for changes going into effect April 5. Doctors should check in with their health IT vendor in order to make sure they meet the new requirements.