Optometrists, nonprofits partner to expand vision care in Appalachian Ohio
Dr. Shane Foster remembers growing up in Athens County and wearing glasses from an early age. The southeastern Ohio optometrist understands the unique challenges of being a kid in Appalachia and the gaping need for vision care.
And as president of the Ohio Optometric Foundation, a statewide vision advocacy organization, he’s seen how that need limits educational success throughout the region.
“Ohio has a third-grade reading guarantee but not a third-grade vision guarantee,” Foster said. “We expect them to read at a certain level, but we’re not giving them the tools to do that.”
But thanks to the Ohio Optometric Foundation’s partnership with the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, the region’s philanthropic arm, and Vision To Learn, a national nonprofit group that provides eye care to students across the country, 7,500 kids across 20 school districts in Appalachian Ohio will receive an eye exam via mobile clinic over the next three years.
Finding a champion in the treasurer’s office
On March 1, Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague announced the vision care project proposal met the criteria under the state’s ResultsOHIO program, a program in Sprague’s office that assesses whether prospective “pay for success” initiatives are worth additional state dollars.
“We cannot overinvest in our smaller communities in Appalachian Ohio and around the state,” the treasurer said.
Sprague explained that ResultsOHIO is a financial model that encourages Ohio’s brightest minds in the private sector to help solve problems in the public sector.
Program applicants are required to front the initial costs and, if deemed performance-ready, the treasurer’s office releases a data-driven feasibility report measuring the anticipated price, projected timeline and infrastructure to help lawmakers determine if a public reimbursement of funds is worthwhile.
The mobile vision clinic is just one of seven proposals the treasurer’s office said qualifies for financial consideration by the state. But Sprague emphasized that ResultsOHIO’s goal is not to waste taxpayer dollars.
“Having that private investment on the front-end is a really important,” he said. “It’s another level of vetting.”
His office is very optimistic that the foundation’s collaboration with Vision To Learn and the Ohio Optometric Foundation will garner Statehouse support, he added.
‘Web of community-based partnerships’
More than 33,000 children in Ohio — pre-K through 12th grade — who fail their in-school vision screenings and are referred for a comprehensive eye exam don’t receive one, according to a 2018-2019 report from the Ohio Department of Health.
The foundation, which operates as a convener of philanthropies, hopes to cut down those numbers considerably with the pilot mobile vision care program, which will begin in the fall.
“One of the things that makes this work is this web of community-based partnerships,” foundation CEO Cara Brook said.
After funding a local chapter of the Lion’s Club in Harrison County so the organization could purchase eyecare equipment to test students’ vision in eastern Ohio, Brook explained, the foundation discovered that other communities had the same challenges and began exploring ways to expand its reach.
Enter Vision To Learn.
“FAO reached out and we got to know them a bit,” said Vision To Learn’s executive director, Joan Chu Reese. “We quickly realized we were much more effective and complete as a group because we could combine the philanthropic base of the foundation with the operational ability to provide thousands of children with exams and glasses through Vision To Learn and the bridge to a lifetime of vision care from the Ohio Optometric Foundation.”
The Ohio Optometric Foundation has experience leading a similar initiative to Vision To Learn through its I-See program, which provides free eye exams and glasses to children. But, as Foster explained, it was a small-scale operation that could only serve 200-250 kids a year.
“The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio said, ‘Let’s put both groups together in this synergistic relationship,'” the optometrist said.
From there, FAO was able to spearhead fundraising efforts — with contributions from both its partners — for the project, which will cost slightly more than $1 million over the next three years.
“We’re just so grateful for ResultsOHIO seal of approval,” Brook said.
The services to children are free but will be billable, in part, to Medicaid, she said. And if the foundation is able to secure funding from the legislature they hope to expand the program by adding additional mobile units.
Chu Reese said Vision To Learn is in the process of recruiting right now and will hire a local program manager who will live in Appalachian Ohio. It will employ locally licensed professionals to conduct eye exams and prescribe glasses.
“The state of Ohio has tried to address these disparities in health care access for a long time,” she said, “and with the ResultsOHIO piece it’s really a needed service particularly for Appalachian Ohio.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dr. Shane Foster as an ophthalmologist. He is an optometrist — we regret the error.
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.