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New England College of Optometry Participates in Congressional Advocacy Conference and Hill Visits

Faculty and students from NECO visit Washington DC to advocate for optometry

On April 12-14th, 2015, optometrists and optometry students gathered in Washington DC to attend the Congressional Advocacy Conference. Sponsored by the American Optometric Association, participants at this yearly conference have the opportunity to attend meetings, network with other optometrists and students, and lobby for optometric-related legislation.

Representing the New England College of Optometry at the conference this year were several current NECO students, as well as Professor Aurora Denial and NECO alum Maria Sampalis (OD ’07). On the final day of the conference, Drs. Denial and Sampalis were joined by NECO students Jessie Hogan (OD2017) and Ting Zhang (OD2015) for a series of “Hill” visits. Dr. Denial, pictured with Jessie Hogan OD2017, and Dr. Sampalis, coordinated visits with staff and congressional leaders from Massachusetts to advocate for current legislature related to optometry. Students had the opportunity to meet with representatives from their home state or to visit Massachusetts offices with Dr. Denial.

This year, the NECO group met with 10 out of 11 congressional offices, discussing legislation related to related to two specific issues: the inclusion of Optometry in the National Health Service Core (HR 1312) and the designation of residency positions within the Veteran Administration system (HR 1688). “Our meetings involved two senators, health care policy aides, and chiefs of staff in several offices,” notes Dr. Denial. “Meeting with health care policy aides is critical as they advise the congressional representatives and research the issues closely.”

In seeking a cosponsor for HR1312, optometrists are lobbying for the inclusion of optometry into the National Health Service Core federal health program. This inclusion would increase access to vision care in underserved communities by easing the debt burden of young optometrists working in rural and urban community health centers and underserved areas by allowing doctors of optometry to participate in the NHSC student loan repayment and scholarship program. HR 1688 seeks to address issues of overcrowding and extended wait times for the VA by expanding access of eye care for veterans by increasing the number of residency programs for the VA optometry program. Advocates stress the benefit of fully-licensed optometry residents to address issues such as wait times and identifying health issues among veterans.

These advocacy experiences help provide insight for students into how the government works and the impact their involvement can have upon future legislation. They also receive the opportunity to help move the profession forward through their lobbying efforts. Dr. Denial explains, “My experience attending this conference and the Hill visits for over ten years has been extremely positive. We meet with people who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing. I’ve also learned the complexity of how a bill becomes a law and how co-sponsorship and lumping together bills can make it very slow to pass legislation. That’s why our continued presence and student participation is so important.”

Coincidentally, during the Congressional Advocacy Conference, legislature related to the Medicare payment reform was passed by Congress. This legislation, long advocated by members of the optometric field, includes improving access medical eye care to seniors by doctors of optometry and further defining rates of reimbursement.