More than 500 American Optometric Association member doctors and students took to Washington, D.C., April 12-14, as part of the AOA Congressional Advocacy Conference to focus the national spotlight on the profession and help advance optometry's top priorities, including sweeping legislation that would finally fix Medicare’s flawed sustainable growth rate formula and recognize at its foundation the key physician role that optometrists play in the program.

Just weeks before optometry’s largest annual gathering of advocacy leaders, U.S. House members voted overwhelmingly to approve H.R. 2, a bipartisan bill to replace the SGR with a new merit-based incentive payment system. This afforded AOA members the opportunity to personally visit their U.S. Senators’ offices to reinforce their support for an SGR reform bill that solidifies optometry’s central role in Medicare for decades to come.

And later Tuesday evening—after AOA members and students spent all day advocating for optometry on Capitol Hill—the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would do away with the payment formula.

“It's fitting that there were more than 500 AOA doctors and students on Capitol Hill yesterday in the hours leading up to the historic final vote. We reminded senators about optometry's essential and expanding role in Medicare, and kept OD physician status as a non-negotiable foundation of the final bill. This win—after years of attacks on our role as physicians and repeated payment disruptions—offers a new reason for AOA members to be proud of our organization's impact and results in Washington, D.C.,” says AOA President David A. Cockrell.

“As this top priority and our other federal legislative priorities demonstrate, the full recognition we deserve and the expanded access to quality care that America needs are winning ideas that can and do attract bipartisan support.”

Optometry led a special forum with officials from U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, AARP, and AOA leaders, including Dr. Cockrell and Steven A. Loomis, O.D., AOA president-elect, which focused on ensuring healthier aging by expanding seniors’ access to comprehensive eye exams. As part of the “Health Policy Listening Session: Comprehensive Eye Exams and Healthy Aging,” optometry’s frontline advocates and aging experts discussed removing policy barriers that prevent seniors’ comprehensive eye exams.

Throughout the conference, hundreds of ODs and students visited the offices of their Congressional representatives to urge support of AOA-backed legislation, including two key bills:

  • National Health Service Corps bill (H.R. 1312/S. 898). This bill aims to make ODs eligible once again for NHSC scholarship and loan repayment programs while they aid underserved populations. Support has been building on Capitol Hill for this legislation as last Congress the NHSC bill had 145 co-sponsors in the House and 12 supporters in the Senate, the highest level of co-sponsors yet for this legislation. Additionally, report language in the final spending bill of the 113th Congress directed the federal government to evaluate the possibility of a demonstration project that would recognize ODs as primary care providers within NHSC.
  • Optometric residencies in the VA (H.R. 1688). This bill would amend the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 to increase residency positions specifically for doctors of optometry by 10 percent. The bill was introduced by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) and was last referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Unlike the political stalemate of years before, the bipartisan support for H.R. 2 (also reflected in the Senate’s version of the bill) shows “there is a different atmosphere on the hill this year,” said Roger Jordan, AOA Federal Relations Committee chair. “This may be a new political reality and the AOA has been working for months to seize every opportunity.”

Political aficionados later enjoyed a special luncheon thanks to HOYA Vision Care that featured political consultant Frank Luntz, Ph.D., president and founder of Luntz Global Partners, who continued a discussion about the current climate in Washington, D.C.

AOA members were also recognized for their exceeding commitment and service to advancing the profession of optometry: Glen Steele, O.D., InfantSEE and Children’s Vision Committee chair, and Helene Clayton-Jeter, O.D., U.S. Food & Drug Administration Health Programs coordinator in the Commissioner’s Office of Health and Constituent Affairs, were honored with the AOA President’s Award.

Annually, the AOA Advocacy Group honors legislators and government officials who advance efforts related to eye and vision care with Health Care Leadership Awards. With special thanks to Safilo Group, the awards were presented during the Breakfast with Optometry’s Champions on Tuesday. The 2015 award recipients include:

  • Senator John Boozman, O.D. (R-AR)
  • Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL)
  • Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY)
  • Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK)
  • Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-OR)
  • Congressman Dave Loebsack (D-IA)
  • Congresswoman Anne McLane Kuster (D-NH)
  • Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY)
  • Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK)
  • Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY)
  • Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)

Those representatives recognized the essential health care role that optometrists play and many spoke to their own personal stories of how optometrists made a difference in their lives. In the end, they all voiced overwhelming support for patients and the profession.

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