Allying for Health Equity Blog

The Association of Clinicians for the Underserved is awarding five $25,000 grants to community health centers (CHCs) to help expand eye health and vision care for patients in under-resourced and marginalized communities. Made possible by the generous support of the Centene Corporation, ACU’s vision grants will enable five largely rural CHCs to offer comprehensive vision services to low-income, predominantly BIPOC patients in Alaska, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Montana.

Part of ACU’s five-year initiative to increase access to vision services in under-resourced communities, the April 2022 grants have been awarded to five health centers including:

“For the fifth consecutive year ACU has helped to provide desperately needed eyecare to communities who need it most” through grants, mobile eye exam clinics, and free technical assistance, said Dr. Ashley Burns, Chair of ACU’s Eye Health and Vision Services Committee and Director of Optometry at Coastal Family Health Center. “With each successfully implemented clinic, the ‘Right to Sight’ is restored for hundreds of underserved people.”

The Crisis of Eye Health and Vision Loss

Healthy vision is crucial to overall health, and vision and eye health are linked to employability, academic success, and independence. Vision loss is one of the most feared disabilities among adults, causing substantial social and economic damages. Yet despite the vital important of vision services, many patients in medically underserved communities face incredible barriers to accessing this care due to issues ranging from poverty to lack of transportation. For many of these patients, federally qualified health centers represent the only lifeline to these services, yet in 2019, less than 3% of CHC patients received services in a health center setting.

ACU’s Eye Health and Vision Care program aims to change that. Since 2017, the initiative has partnered with CHCs across the United States, providing over 3,500 vision exams through mobile clinics and more recently awarding nearly $200,000 in grants to help health centers start or expand vision care programs in 2021 alone. At PrimaryOne Health in Columbus, OH, these funds allowed the purchase of an optical coherence tomography machine to help their program diagnose and help treat individuals with glaucoma and retinal diseases.

2021 Grant Recipients
2021 Grant Recipients

Candy, 62, a vision patient of PrimaryOne Health in Columbus, OH
Candy, 62, a patient of PrimaryOne Health in Columbus, OH

“Having to refer our patients to another site meant that we were sometimes exacerbating the transportation, scheduling, and/or financial barriers faced by the patients,” said Dr. Gregary Graves, OD, of PrimaryOne. “Referring our patients elsewhere would significantly decrease the likelihood that our patients would go on to receive the follow-up care they need at a price they could afford. By providing low-cost vision care services to our patients, we can ensure that they have access to quality eye care, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Those patients included women like Candy. A 62-year-old volunteer at the Literacy Council in Columbus, OH, Candy was an avid reader but found herself increasingly struggling to see the pages in front of her. Without insurance, she struggled to access care before reaching out to PrimaryOne Health, where she received affordable and considerate care, as well as eyeglasses. Crediting Dr. Graves with improving not only her eyesight but also her quality of life, Candy has returned to her favorite activities—including the printed word—with the health center’s help. Hers is one but of a host of patient success stories at the 19 health centers ACU has supported with its eye health and vision care grants since 2018.

Grant-Funded Health Center Initiatives for Eye Health & Vision Care

The five health centers supported by ACU’s vision grants in 2022 will follow in those footsteps. Predominantly operating in rural and BIPOC communities, these health centers will each aim to start or expand eye health and vision care services for their patients. In California, EDCHC is working to open an optometry center in an area in which the few optometrists which operate often due not accept Medicaid or uninsured patients, leaving vision care out of reach for many. In Arizona, Native Health is utilizing their grant to equip a one-lane exam clinic to reach patients disproportionately at risk for diabetic retinopathy, the majority of whom are Native American and Latinx. Additionally, MHSI will be a pioneer for Montana as the first FQHC to open a vision clinic in the state. Each of the health centers will seek specifically to expand access to care for under-resourced populations.

A Patient Receives New Glasses at one of ACU’s Mobile Eye Clinics in 2019
A Patient Receives New Glasses at one of ACU’s Mobile Eye Clinics in 2019

“As an optometrist and a member of ACU’s Vision Services Committee, it’s very fulfilling to see the excitement from each health center and to see the vision for the clinics come to fruition. I give thanks and kudos to these clinics for stepping up to address the major public health issue of vision loss,” said Burns.

In partnership with the Centene Corporation, ACU will offer further vision grants to additional health centers, and a call for applications will open later this year. The Eye Health & Vision Care program also offers free technical assistance to any health centers interested in starting or expanding vision services for their own communities, and its educational efforts also included a recent “Eye on Access” webinar series with the National Association of Community Health Centers and Prevent Blindness.

Further Resources

For more resources on best practices for implementing or improving eye health and vision care at health centers—as well as opportunities for free technical assistance—please visit ACU’s Eye Health and Vision Care resources, which features a white paper on integrating vision care into primary care settings for underserved populations, archived webinar on eye health and vision care programs at FQHCs, a vision services readiness assessment, and more. If you need technical assistance or are interested in learning more about ACU’s next round of eye health and vision care grants, please contact Luke Ertle, Program Director.