By Minali Nigam

The eyes have it in this year’s Senate budget, which calls for $2.1 million to fund adult eye exams.

“We have reinstated [that] coverage so that we can continue to find glaucoma and diabetes and other vision issues that exist in the Medicaid population for adults,” said Senate Health and Human Services appropriations co-chair Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine).

photo of the eye measurement device at an optometrist's office
Photo courtesy Andrew Fresh, flickr creative commons

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) asked during a Senate appropriations meeting Wednesday whether the coverage would extend to treatment for people who are diagnosed after the routine eye exam.

Only the exams would be covered for adult eye issues, Hise conceded, adding that funding for follow-up services would be considered in the long run.

Even with the coverage, having all those eye exams performed could pose problems. According to 2014 health workforce data from UNC-Chapel Hill, twelve counties in North Carolina have few or no optometrists.

“Our ratio of optometrists to the population is low,” optometrist Dr. Hal Herring told legislators during a 2014 hearing.

That meeting brought lawmakers and optometrists together at the General Assembly to discuss provider practice, training, and the current state of optometry in North Carolina. Since Herring spoke at the legislature, there’s been little discussion about optometry training in North Carolina.

Until now.

The current Senate budget would also make moves to alleviate an optometrist shortage. Senators’ spending plan supports a study on creating a training school at Wingate University, in Union County.

“There are no schools for optometry in the state,” Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) said during this week’s appropriations committee meeting. “Optometrists are aging out.”

The optometry program would be funded privately by Wingate, according to Tucker, but the state would put $900,000 towards establishing a free clinic so students could get experience while treating Medicaid patients.

Boy at phoropter; The phoropter is the most recognizable tool used by optometrists, used to determine a person's eyeglass prescription.
The phoropter is the most recognizable tool used by optometrists, used to determine a person’s eyeglass prescription.
Photo courtesy woodley wonderworks, flickr creative commons.

The plan encourages Wingate to assess the number of potential applicants and expenses for the program.

“No money has actually been appropriated; it’s just a study for the State to get the numbers,” Tucker said.

Herring told lawmakers in 2014 that national figures show roughly one optometrist per 7,000 persons. “In NC, it is closer to one optometrist for every 10,000 of the population,” he said.

Herring’s practice is in Robeson County, one of the shortage areas.

“If we had a school of optometry in North Carolina, we feel like that would be beneficial to our ratio of optometrists to population over the coming years,” he told lawmakers at the time.

Students from North Carolina who want to attend optometry training programs have to go out of state and pay out-of-state fees. Herring said that students who leave to be trained tend not to return to the state to establish their own practices.

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