LOWNDES COUNTY -- Seniors with vision impairments could have options for correcting vision loss or treating vision impairing disease without cost for up to a year.

EyeCare America, a public service foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, established the Seniors EyeCare program to help seniors have access to medical eye care and to promote annual, dilated eye exams by an ophthalmologist, said Betty Lucas, director of Public Service Programs for EyeCare America. The program does not apply to optometrists, who are doctors of optometry who diagnose and treat visual health problems as dictated by state law. Some optometrists specialize in vision therapy. An ophthalmologist is a doctor of medicine who specializes in surgery and diseases of the eye. A small number of ophthalmologists work with or refer to vision therapists or orthoptists.

The Seniors EyeCare program aims to raise awareness about age-related eye disease, including cataracts, provides free eye care educational materials and facilitates access to eye care. Those qualified for the ophthalmologist volunteer program receive a comprehensive, medical eye exam and up to one year of treatment at no out-of-pocket expense for any condition diagnosed during the initial exam.

"No out-of-pocket expense" means that patients without insurance are seen at no charge, and co-payments and deductible are waived for those with insurance or MediCare, Lucas said. After potential patients qualify for the program, they are matched by zip code to the nearest participating ophthalmologist on a rotating basis, so no one ophthalmologist becomes overloaded with patients or overlooked, Lucas said.

"It's very important as you age that you let a true ophthalmologist look at the back of your eye to ward off some of these common vision-impairing diseases," Lucas said. "It's a wonderful program, not only for the patients, but it's also important for the public to know that these ophthalmologists are volunteering to offer these services."

Eyeglasses, prescription drugs, hospital services and fees of other medical professionals are not paid for by this program. However, many doctors provide samples of prescription drugs for patients who need them, and EyeCare America provides a pharmaceutical directory as a resource the physicians can use, Lucas said. Often, the physicians are able to work with the patient on further serving the patient, and patients can also take advantage of national resources EyeCare America will provide.

Each ophthalmologist can see only 15 Senior EyeCare patients per year because as set by with the waiver under the Inspector General. If the area is underserved, as Lowndes County is, this rule does not apply, Lucas said. It would become a matter of how many patients the doctor would be willing to handle.

Seniors EyeCare is available for U.S. citizens or legal residents age 65 or older who have not seen an ophthalmologist in three or more years and do not have eye insurance through an HMO or the VA.

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