Health care reform is currently being debated in the U.S. Congress, in state legislatures, and by nearly every element of the health care system. The reasons for change need little elaboration: Upward of 40 million Americans are without health insurance and facing restricted access to health care services, and health insurance premiums are reaching levels that neither employers nor low- and middle-income families can afford. Health care costs now represent 14% of the nation’s output of goods and services. The quality of care is inconsistent, and excessive health care resources, including training programs, are positioned in specialty areas, while major deficits exist in much needed primary care services and clinical training.
How must health care in America change? I believe that we must and will have universal entitlement – health care security for all Americans, but major changes are also required in all aspects of the current system. We must reach a proper relationship between the numbers of primary care health providers and specialists, improve access to health services, control costs, and assure quality of care, and any new health plan must support training of primary care providers, including optometrists. Ten states have recognized the need for change and already have some type of health reform legislation in place. As a health care administrator, I am frequently asked about President Clinton’s health care reform initiative. I believe that it is the right plan for the American people and the best plan for optometry. The President’s proposal explicitly provides eye/vision care benefits and recognizes optometry’s role in primary care.
In 1973, doctors of optometry were first granted the legal right and responsibility for administering pharmaceutical agents. Now, optometrists in 40 states are clinically privileged in the management of diseases and conditions of the eye. The progress of the optometric profession over the past 20 years has been dramatic. I attribute this success to a sincere desire on the part of practitioners nationwide to provide more accessible and cost-effective eye care to their patients and the expansion of the clinical practice of optometry to include the management of eye diseases and prescriptive authority that has been essential to optometry’s primary care role. As a result of this dramatic progress, I believe that optometry is now positioned to assume the role of primary eye care provider under national health reform.
Today’s optometrist is uniquely qualified to meet the challenge of national health care reform. Optometrists are the nation’s most accessible eye care providers, practicing in more than 6800 municipalities throughout the United States. In more than half of these communities, they are the only eye care providers available. Optometric clinicians are often the point of contact in the health care system for many people and their training qualifies them to serve in a role for patients with systematic health problems that manifest in the eye. This is particularly important in medically underserved areas.
Vision and eye health problems are among the nation’s most prevalent disorders affecting more than 140 million people. Vision problems inhibit the ability of children to learn, adults to work, and the elderly to live independent and productive lives. Regular eye examinations are also an essential preventive measure for the early diagnosis and prompt treatment of eye diseases, which, if undetected, result in individual suffering and added societal costs. A recent study by the Georgetown University Medical Center concluded that over 100,000 new cases of blindness yearly are preventable through timely detection and treatment and would result in an estimated annual savings to the federal budget of one billion dollars.
The demand for services of primary care providers in the United States continues to exceed the supply of manpower resources available. Health care reform provides an opportunity to restructure the delivery and health educational systems in ways that make better use of America’s available health care resources through the use of cooperative approaches to health delivery and training. Enhanced primary care training for optometrists is consistent with the current emphasis on primary care in federal health care policies.
Optometry and ophthalmology are complementary eye care professions in the Department of Veterans Affairs and nationwide. However, interprofessional controversy over certain issues persist. These issues include the extent of clinical privileges for optometrists, the role of the optometric clinician in pre- and postoperative patient management, and the use of laser technology by optometrists. Such sensitive issues are not easily resolved. However, there are many areas of mutual agreement, and I believe that the eye care professions can, and should, cooperate in patient care programs, education, training, and research. Cooperative programs already exist in some health care institutions in the nation, but on a limited basis.
The success of cooperative programs between optometry and ophthalmology is evidence that joint efforts can be advantageous to both medicine and optometry and that optometrists and physicians can work together as colleagues. In cooperation with affiliated health professions schools, I believe that properly constructed and thoroughly evaluated eye centers of excellence could serve as models that promote preventive care, while at the same time provide state-of-the-art treatment and rehabilitative services. These models could be emulated throughout the national health system.
The future can take us into a new era of accessible, affordable, and quality health care and lead optometry into an arena of greater responsibility for the eye care needs of all Americans.
I gratefully acknowledge the contributions of A. Norman Haffner, O.D., Ph.D., President, State College of Optometry, State University of New York, and James Holsinger, M.D., Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Kentucky Medical Center, to the preparation of this speech and the advancement of VA optometry. This editorial is taken from Dr. Mullen’s speech given June 2, 1994 at the graduation ceremonies at The Southern College of Optometry.
Clinical Eye and Vision Care.
Volume 6. Number 3. 1994.
Charles F. Mullen, O.D.