Years ago, I told my boss at a small startup that I’d been wearing the same contact lenses for at least three months, in spite of the fact that I was supposed to change them out every other week. He was agog.
“Isn’t that terrible for your eyes?” he asked.
It was, but I didn’t have much of a choice. His company didn’t cover my health care and I couldn’t afford a new visit, a new prescription and new lenses.
I was not alone in this behavior; the American Optometric Association estimated that about 45 percent of wearers use their contacts past their limit. To some degree, this is likely due to laziness or forgetfulness, but a lot of people in the country keep putting in old contact lenses out of necessity.
The need for corrective lenses in the United States is high; the Vision Council estimates that as many as two out of every three Americans needs some form of vision correction. But at a time when health care costs remain high — and when the window for Affordable Care Act (ACA) open enrollment, which is happening right now, is shorter than it’s ever been — the difficulty in getting them is also high.
As part of the ACA, secondary care, like dental and vision, was supposed to be more accessible. Unfortunately, congressional gridlock and input from interest groups (fun fact: 1-800-Contacts made their first lobbying appearance during the 2009 session) ensured that vision continued to be treated as an expensive add-on.
So even though more people than ever have some form of health insurance, a lot of folks are still squinting their way through the day; one 2016 report from the National Academy of Sciences found that some 16 million individuals have some visual issue that is left untreated.
Even though more people than ever have some form of health insurance, a lot of folks are still squinting their way through the day.
Many of them, undoubtedly, are homeless folks, for whom degraded contact lenses and outdated prescriptions can mean a difficult experience is made even more impossible.
There are, of course, resources; organizations such as the Seattle King County Clinic, which performed more than 1,200 eye exams and gave out more than 1,100 pairs of glasses in 2017, are a lifeline. But ideally, being able to see wouldn’t be a special gift from a charitable organization, or something that requires an expenditure — it would be a human right.
Health care access has improved substantially since the ACA went into effect — and this month, as many Americans sign up for their new or different health care plans, they’ll be glad to have the option. But health care must go beyond a check-up or the ability to get a medication. It must incorporate the needs of the entire person.
Hanna Brooks Olsen’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
Check out the full Nov. 7 - 13 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.