Mark Richert, Esq., Director, and Rebecca Sheffield, Ph.D., Senior Policy Researcher, from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Public Policy Center have announced the introduction of new federal legislation that seeks to establish a nationwide Medicare demonstration project to evaluate the fiscal impact of a permanent change in Medicare coverage that would, for the first time, provide reimbursement for low vision devices.
The AFB Public Policy Center, in Washington, DC, collaborates with policy makers in Congress and the Executive Branch to ensure that Americans with vision loss have equal rights and opportunities to fully participate in society.
The Legislation: H.R.729
The legislation, entitled H.R.729 – Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act of 2015, was introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and co-sponsored by Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). The bill “directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to commence a project to demonstrate and evaluate the fiscal impact of covering low vision devices under part B (Supplementary Medical Insurance) of title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act in the same or similar manner as coverage is provided for durable medical equipment under such part.”
In other words, just as a person might need a cane or a walker after a physical injury, so would a person with low vision need a low vision device to continue to function as independently as possible.
The proposed legislation defines low vision devices as “a device, prescribed by a physician that magnifies, enhances, or otherwise augments or interprets visual images irrespective of the size, form, or technological features of such device and does not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses. The term ‘ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses’ means lenses that are intended to fully correct visual acuity or fully eliminate refractive error.”
The legislation is careful to require that the five-year demonstration project be genuinely national in scope and is explicitly designed to yield reliable data and meaningful results.
Some Background on Medicare and Low Vision Devices
For decades, the vision loss community has been advocating for Medicare’s coverage of assistive technologies, particularly low vision devices. Currently, Medicare will not pay for any device that happens to use a lens, regardless of whether the device incorporates any other features.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency responsible for the management of Medicare, has ruled that devices containing a lens – such as low vision optical devices and electronic magnifiers – are excluded from coverage, just as are eyeglasses or contact lenses, except in very narrow circumstances, such as intraocular lenses for cataract surgery.
More about Low Vision Devices
Low vision devices, such as optical devices and electronic and digital magnifiers, can help you make the most of your vision so that you can perform everyday tasks more easily and with less frustration. All low vision devices require training in order to use them efficiently and effectively.
Low Vision Optical Devices
Low vision optical devices include a variety of helpful visual aids, including stand and hand-held magnifiers, strong magnifying reading glasses, loupes, and small telescopes.
Because these devices can provide greatly increased magnification powers and prescription strengths, along with higher-quality optics (i.e., the way the lens bends or refracts light), they are different from regular glasses and magnifiers that you can buy in a local store or online.
Electronic Magnifying Systems
Electronic magnifying systems come in many different varieties and sizes, depending upon the task or activity you want, or need, to do. Some have a camera system that displays a magnified image on a monitor, which can be helpful for reading mail, books, and magazines, while others are hand-held, portable, and can be taken to the supermarket to read labels and coupons, or to restaurants for reading menus.
Both types of low vision devices are often recommended as part of a low vision examination. A low vision exam by a low vision specialist — an ophthalmologist or optometrist with credentials or specialization in low vision testing, diagnosis, and treatment — is the best way to decide what type of device or devices are best for you, your eye condition, and your everyday living needs. At your low vision evaluation, you will have the opportunity to try a variety of devices in a variety of settings and learn first-hand how they can work for you.
More from Sponsor Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)
In her introductory remarks, H.R.729 sponsor Carolyn Maloney said the following:
Mr. Speaker, it is estimated that more than 60 million Americans are at risk of serious vision loss – a number expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages. Along with my colleague Representative Gus Bilirakis, I am proud to reintroduce legislation to support Americans with limited or impaired vision. For someone with a visual impairment, reading a book or crossing the street could be blurred or distorted even with the help of glasses or contact lenses.
In many cases, a physician can prescribe magnifiers or special optical devices to help an individual remain independent. While there are a wide variety of options to help people with low vision, currently, there is an exclusion from Medicare coverage for devices that include a lens to aid vision or provide magnification of images for impaired vision. Ultimately, not having these assistance devices could shift more individuals from independent living to care facilities or nursing homes.
To understand the impact of covering these devices for America’s seniors, we are introducing the Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act of 2015. This legislation would create a five-year national demonstration project administered by the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate the economic impact of allowing reimbursement for certain low vision devices under the Social Security Act. Coverage of such devices could help Medicare beneficiaries with low vision lead healthy, safe, and independent lives.
Additional Sponsors of H.R.729 – Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act of 2015
There is still no companion bill in the Senate. However, the following members of the House of Representatives currently are co-sponsors of H.R.729:
- Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL)
- Representative David Jolly (R-FL)
- Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA)
- Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL)
- Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
- Representative Robert Brady (D-PA)
- Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA)
- Representative Candice Miller (R-MI)
- Representative Scott Peters (D-CA)
- Representative Donald Beyer, Jr. (D-VA)
- Representative Denny Heck (D-WA)
- Representative Niki Tsongas (D-MA)
What Can You Do?
Talk to your Representatives about co-signing the bill and help identify a Senator who might be interested in filing a companion bill in the Senate. The bill is currently one of the American Council of the Blind’s 2016 legislative imperatives.
Here is some suggested language to use when you make a call or send an email:
- Tell your Representative, “I support H.R.729 because assistive devices help to guarantee the independence of people with vision loss. Please co-sponsor this bill.”
- Tell your Senator, “I support Medicare coverage of low vision devices to help guarantee the independence of people with vision loss. Please introduce a Senate companion to H.R.729.”