The American Optometric Association (AOA) urges Congress to pass HR 1884, a bi-partisan bill to end the misguided exclusion of doctors of optometry from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) student loan repayment and scholarship programs. The NHSC provides loan forgiveness and incentives to attract providers to health professional shortage areas. HR 1884, sponsored by Reps. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Joe Pitts (R-PA), will expand access to eye and vision care in medically underserved communities across the country.
HR 1884 has also been endorsed by the American Optometric Student Association and the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. In 2005, the National Rural Health Association and the National Association of Community Health Centers supported a directive from the House and Senate appropriations committees to include optometrists in the NHSC student loan program in order to expand access to eye and vision care services in underserved areas.
The NHSC provides access to quality health care services for millions of Americans who might otherwise be forced to do without. As part of this mission, the NHSC student loan repayment program helps bring together dedicated health care providers with the rural and urban community health centers that need their services.
The program provides financial support specifically aimed at easing the debt burden associated with a professional education, and allows carefully selected clinicians – including primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, dentists, mental and behavioral health professionals, physician assistants, certified nurse-midwives and dental hygienists -- to undertake an extraordinary, multi-year commitment to safeguarding public health.
Since the NHSC student loan repayment program was restructured in 2002, it has been made far less effective by the exclusion of doctors of optometry, the nation’s frontline providers of eye and vision care. Today, only about 17% of community health centers have an optometrist on staff, which severely restricts access to primary eye care services, including comprehensive eye exams; detecting and diagnosing eye diseases like glaucoma, cataracts, retinal disorders and eye infections; treating eye diseases; and evaluating and treating presbyopia and other vision conditions.