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Vision insurance leads to better eye health

By Jeff Stensland, stenslan@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3686

Employers sometimes question whether the extra money they pay in insurance premiums for vision care is really worth it. A new study by researchers from the University of South Carolina offers evidence that it is, because those with vision coverage are more likely to get needed check-ups and have better overall vision than those without coverage.

The findings are published this week in the Archives of Ophthalmology, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association network, and call into question the traditional approach of treating vision coverage as a frill rather than an essential part of an insurance plan.

The research was conducted by Sudha Xirasagar, a professor in the Arnold School of Public Health’s Department of Health Services Policy and Management, and Yi-Jhen Li, a doctoral student in the program. The study was an offshoot of a class project Li developed.

“From the preliminary findings of that class project, we developed it into a bigger piece of work with major medical outcome and public health ramifications, linking eye visits to self-reported vision difficulty, not only in the general population but also the high risk subset of the U.S. population,” Xirasagar said.

The authors compared eye care visits and vision impairment among working-age adults with and without vision insurance. The study included 27,152 respondents between the ages of 40 and 64 years who responded to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 11 percent of them had a diagnosis of glaucoma, macular degeneration or cataract. About 40 percent of the study’s population had no vision insurance, although only 15 percent had no health insurance of any kind.

Individuals with vision insurance were more likely to report having had eye care visits in the past year, which can catch and treat conditions like glaucoma and macular degeneration before they worsen into permanent vision loss or blindness. Persons with vision insurance and eye visits also were less likely to report difficulty reading or recognizing friends from across the street. The opposite was true for those without vision insurance, who were much less likely to receive eye exams and reported worse vision overall. People with serious eye conditions had a similar percentage lacking vision insurance coverage, were less likely to have eye visits in the absence of vision insurance and were more likely to report significant vision impairment in the absence of eye visits.

The study also points out an alarming fact -- more than 11 percent of adults age 40 to 64 have serious eye conditions that can lead to blindness, including macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataract. As the American population ages, routine eye exams to identify these potentially disabling conditions early are increasingly important. Vision care insurance for adults, however, is often offered as a supplemental benefit to be separately purchased by employers, and not included as part of standard health plans.

Xirasagar hopes the study leads to the adoption of vision screening from the age of 40 as a basic preventive service. While vision coverage is considered a mandatory benefit for children under the federal Affordable Care Act, it is not required for adult plans.

“Lack of vision insurance impedes eye care utilization, which, in turn, may irrevocably affect vision,” she said.

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Posted: 12/10/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/10/12 @ 5:01 PM | Permalink

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