The eyes have it: vision care in Alaska.
Many Groups Support Eye Care
A number of entities support vision care in Alaska. Optometrists licensed in Alaska must have graduated from an accredited school of optometry and passed both a written and practical exam administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry and a state exam administered by the Alaska Board of Examiners in Optometry. Continuing education is required for renewal. There are 179 licensed optometrists across the state, slightly more than in 2011.
The Alaska Optometric Association represents optometrists throughout Alaska and is the recognized authority for primary eye and vision care. Continuing education credits can be fulfilled at AKOA's annual conference. The group is active in promoting health and vision care legislation that could affect Alaskans, as well as promoting public education about eye health.
Since 1976, the nonprofit Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired has focused on making sure that vision loss is not the barrier to Alaskans meeting their vocational goals or living safely and independently at any age. It is the only vision rehabilitation facility in the state. The majority of people the Center serves are low vision, meaning they have at least some usable vision that helps them function. The organization offers senior and youth programs, and holds classes in daily activities such as personal grooming and shopping, Braille, assistive technology and more. It can house up to five out-of-town students at a time while they attend classes, some of which last up to two months. At the Anchorage-based facility, there is even a woodshop for clients to use as an aid in boosting confidence. The Center partners with the State of Alaska's Department of Labor and Workforce Development's Vocational Rehabilitation division to help with job development and placement opportunities. Executive Director Karla Jutzi emphasizes the importance of keeping the visually impaired in the workplace and encourages employers to contact the Center to learn more about resources. The organization is also active in rural communities; Jutzi said staff members have visited about 20 in the past year.
Alaska Blind Child Discovery is a cooperative charitable research project to provide vision screening for every Alaskan of preschool age. It's coordinated by optometrists at Ophthalmic Associates in Anchorage.
Alaska Information Radio Reading and Educational Services, or AIRRES., is unique in Alaska as the only broadcast reading service for blind and vision impaired people in the state. AIRRES provides a special radio to listen to various entertainment and educational channels, including many of Alaska's newspapers, national magazines, American Council of the Blind's ACB Cafe, ACB Treasure Trove, some BBC channels and National Public Radio via special "blind-friendly" internet receivers, which are free.
Alaska Early Intervention/Infant Learning Program (EI/ILP) is a division of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Office of Child Services that partners with grantees around the state to provide services, including vision screening, directly to eligible children.
The Aurora Borealis Lions Eyeglass Recycling and Vision Center in North Pole recycles approximately 40,000 pairs of glasses each year, most of which currently go overseas to support other Lions' vision programs. Some, however, stay right here in the state to benefit Alaskans, made possible by a state law passed in 2008 that allows Alaska non-profits to be certified by the state to fit any resident, free of charge, with a set of used glasses, provided the person has a prescription obtained from a licensed optometrist or physician. The glasses conform as closely as possible to the prescription.
"Lasik," which stands for laser in-situ keratomileusis, has become a household word in recent years. Though it's not for everybody, it is a popular surgery used to correct vision in people who are nearsighted, farsighted or have astigmatism.
Alaska Lasik Center in Anchorage is currently Alaskans' only option for blade-free laser vision correction, though other types of laser eye surgery are considered very safe and have a high satisfaction rate among patients. Earlier this year, the Alaska Eye Surgery Center and Laser Center opened in Anchorage and offers the use of its facilities for local ophthalmic surgeons.
Rural Vision Care
Few of Alaska's smaller communities have regular optometry services; rather, a traveling optometrist visits regularly but not frequently, or residents go to a larger regional hub for vision and other health care. Bethel, for example, offers a full suite of eye care options via the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. The Norton Sound Health Corp. provides eye care services to Nome residents; optometrists make annual field trips to other area locations.
In communities such as McGrath (population 341), an optometrist comes once a year and brings various frames for customers to choose from; glasses are then ordered with the correct lenses. McGrath resident Natalie Baumgartner says though plenty of people see the visiting optometrist and most find that service meets their needs, some still fly to Anchorage for their vision care needs, especially for unusual issues or surgery.
Out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta northwest of Bethel, another rural Alaskan, Dawn Webb of Mountain Village, said residents have to fly to Bethel or Anchorage for eye care, and that many people buy glasses online. A traveling optometrist is rarely in town.
"Unfortunately very few people here can afford such expenses and many, many children go without eye care entirely or use the same pair of glasses for prolonged periods of time," Webb said. As someone who lives far off the road system where health care is expensive or nonexistent, she said she's learned to stitch up her cuts, break fevers like a pro and fix her own glasses.
In 2010, 12 community health centers, or CHCs, around Alaska won an Eye Care for Rural Alaskans program grant from the Joint Vision Awareness Committee (Alaska Primary Care Association, Alaska Optometric Association, Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Lions Club). The funding was to buy vision screening devices for use in rural and satellite clinics and other community facilities such as schools. It also provided for an annual optometrist visit to each clinic, an annual visit by a vision rehabilitation specialist to help patients with uncorrectable vision loss, and glasses and other vision aids. Currently, 14 CHCs participate in the program, all of which have their own PlusOptix screeners, an improvement from having to share when the program began. Many of them offer vision screenings at health fairs and other community events.
"Each community also has the ability to have an on-site optometrist visit once per year, but we have been able in some cases to provide more, based on need," said Marilyn Kasmar, executive director of Alaska Primary Care Association. She cites Glennallen as an example; recently, an optometrist visited the community for nine days and saw 180 patients.
"Also, marketing and outreach assistance are now provided to the sites to help maintain and increase staff and community awareness about the program through the year," Kasmar said. "Many Alaskans (120,000 or more) do not have access to health insurance, and when they do, vision needs are often not a covered service."
Eye Exam Assistance Programs
In addition to the Lions Club services mentioned previously, the following vision care assistance programs are available in Alaska.
With a program called InfantSEE, any 6-12-month old infant is eligible for a no cost comprehensive infant eye assessment, regardless of income or insurance. Several optometrists around Alaska are providers of this national program.
Sight for Students is a program administered by AKOA through the charity arm of the national Vision Service Plan. Several criteria must be met for eligibility, including age, lack of vision insurance and family income.
Job Prospects in Vision Care
As with Alaska health care job opportunities in general, due in part to Alaska's aging population, dispensing optician jobs are expected to grow as are those for health care support industries. Alaska's optometrists are among some of the highest paid professionals, with an average monthly income of $11,768. The employment outlook for optometrists in Alaska is not available from the State's Department of Labor and Workforce Development; however, the national outlook is rosy based partly on a growing population that recognizes the importance of good eye care.
Susan Sommer is a freelance writer and editor living in Eagle River.
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|Title Annotation:||HEALTH & MEDICINE|
|Comment:||The eyes have it: vision care in Alaska.(HEALTH & MEDICINE)|
|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2012|
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