When opportunity knocks—in the form of a previously unforeseen and quickly developing opening to meet the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough and advocate for doctors of optometry—you hop on the last flight out and head to Washington, D.C.
During an eventful 48 hours in November, AOA President Robert C. Layman, O.D., saw the opportunity and jumped at it.
Together with the West Virginia Association of Optometric Physicians, AOA President Robert C. Layman, O.D., met Nov. 12 with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., U.S. Senate champion of the bi-partisan Dental and Optometric Care (“DOC”) Access Act, legislation supported by the AOA and American Dental Association targeting vision and dental plan policies undermining quality care.
Dr. Layman got the call on a Monday. Can you come to Washington, D.C.? After a full day of seeing patients on Tuesday, he went to the airport, reviewed his talking points as he waited for the boarding call and then boarded a flight for the nation’s capital that landed about 11 p.m. It was well after midnight before his head hit the hotel pillow, but he rose bright and early that same Wednesday morning, slipped on one of the dry-cleaned suits he keeps ready for occasions just like this and delivered opening remarks at an intimate policy breakfast.
“I’m here representing tens of thousands of doctors of optometry in communities across the country and millions of Americans who rely on local optometrists for their comprehensive eye health and vision care needs,” began Dr. Layman, who shared optometry’s support for ongoing VA efforts to ensure veteran patients have access to the full scope of care doctors of optometry are trained and able to provide.
His remarks drew an enthusiastic response. Afterward, Secretary McDonough and Dr. Layman shared a fist bump at their table. That afternoon, he met with about a half dozen members of Congress from Ohio. By Thursday morning, Dr. Layman was back in his Michigan practice seeing patients. A few days later, though, he would be at the West Virginia Association of Optometric Physicians’ annual meeting where Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., lead sponsor of the AOA-backed Dental and Optometric Care (DOC) Access Act, was the featured speaker and Dr. Layman again addressed issues pertinent to optometry.
“Being available to speak for the profession is a vital function of service on the AOA Board of Trustees,” Dr. Layman says, reflecting now on the whirlwind trip. “That is why being on the board requires years of service in order to master all areas of the AOA enterprise on behalf of the members we serve. Members should expect its leader to communicate with competence and professionalism.
“Every member of the AOA Board of Trustees is exceptional for their love of the profession and their quest for excellence in the service of optometry,” he says. “I personally consider it a privilege to engage in opportunities like this to advance the interests of our members.”
2021: A year of threats and triumphs
AOA advocacy had its hard-earned victories in the federal advocacy realm last year, in spite of resistance from anti-optometry forces.
Among the wins:
- Warded off a nearly 10% Medicare pay cut and fought off a lobbying blitz by those seeking to hijack Congress’ plan for a new Medicare vision benefit. “The AOA was able to assist in stopping the large Medicare cut scheduled to go into law at the end of the year, in large part due to the efforts of the many doctors of optometry who sent letters through the AOA Action Center,” says Robert Theaker, O.D., chair of the AOA Federal Relations Committee. “It was an example of our membership greatly aiding our advocacy efforts.”
- Helped thousands of doctors of optometry secure more than $2 billion in federal small-business relief and other physician assistance directly to optometry and helped win federal recognition for optometrists as frontline vaccinators. “I can't say enough about our advocacy team's efforts to relieve the burden that the pandemic has placed upon optometric offices,” Dr. Theaker says. “The AOA's tireless push continues to reap benefits with the addition of tens of millions in relief over and above last year's $2.2 billion.”
- Escalated the fight against abusive insurers and plans by winning new support for the first-ever bipartisan House/Senate DOC Access companion legislation and enlisting dozens more Capitol Hill leaders in the fight for full enforcement of the AOA-backed federal provider nondiscrimination law. “Our bipartisan House and Senate DOC Access legislation to fight against abusive insurers is continuing to gain steam, and we'll be pushing hard for the passage of this bill at the upcoming AOA on Capitol Hill meeting on April 24-26,” Dr. Theaker says.
- Building on the removal of the VA’s 15-year laser ban in 2020, the AOA and the Armed Forces Optometric Society won the support of key lawmakers and leading veterans service organizations (such as AMVETS) in the fight to secure veterans’ access to the full range of care doctors of optometry are trained and licensed to provide, including laser procedures as the Department of Veterans Affairs develops new optometry-specific national practice standards.“AOA advocacy staff helped educate leading members of the House of Representatives on this key issue, and they in turn have sent a letter to the VA demanding that veterans have access to laser and other advanced procedures, which optometrists can and now safely provide,” Dr. Theaker says.
- Backed a call by key U.S. House committee members for federal regulators to launch an investigation into direct-to-consumer contact lens sales schemes that look to disrupt the doctor-patient relationship and needlessly put patients at risk. “We’re happy to see lawmakers send a letter to the Government Accountability Office calling for a study on unscrupulous direct-to-consumer advertising practices regarding contact lens sales, and we hope to get some new federal action on this important issue now affecting our patients,” Dr. Theaker says. Further, legislation to outlaw contact lens verification robocalls reached its highest point ever.
While many of the aforementioned battles are far from over, the AOA could not have built these new levels of support or momentum without members’ hard work and dedication. These successes and efforts set the groundwork for fights ahead when the second session of the 117th Congress convenes in January.
“Overall, I'm excited and happy to report our AOA advocacy efforts are in full swing, and we expect a great year to come,” Dr. Theaker says. “I hope many of our members will participate in AOA on Capitol Hill in April. And many thanks to all our members who heeded the call when asked to send letters via the AOA Action Center—their advocacy truly made a difference.”
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