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Eyeglasses program has blurry prognosis

Eric Miller, store manager at Affordable Optics in Spokane, fills out display space with Medicaid-eligible frames last week. (Dan Pelle)
Eric Miller, store manager at Affordable Optics in Spokane, fills out display space with Medicaid-eligible frames last week. (Dan Pelle)

State could cut money for Medicaid-funded assistance

Looming Washington state budget cuts could erase a program that puts eyeglasses on 69,000 poor people.

It’s among the stark choices legislators face this month when they convene in Olympia to decide where tax dollars are best spent.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has presented a plan to erase the state’s $2.6 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and assessing new fees.

The vision program is one small part of the state’s Medicaid offering, which blends federal and state dollars to provide health care services to the poor. Last year, for example, the state dedicated $1.7 million and the federal government chipped in $2 million to help adults get their glasses.

If the state halts its funding, the federal government will withdraw its matching dollars.

“You have to see to work,” said Pat Jones, general manager of Affordable Optics. “By helping these folks with their glasses we’re also helping them do simple things, like fill out job applications and hold down jobs.

“These cuts would be terribly unfortunate,” Jones said.

Affordable Optics has made selling eyeglass frames an important part of its business model. The business has two shops: one in north Spokane and a recently opened location in Spokane Valley.

Unlike many optical shops, Jones dedicates a wall space to display dozens of frame options for people with Medicaid vision coupons. While it’s a low-margin business, Jones uses the revenue to hold down the prices on frames sold to people with private insurance and paying cash.

It’s been a successful recipe during the recession, he said, and the business is now preparing to open an optical shop in Coeur d’Alene.

Affordable Optics is owned by YCC International Corp., a Pullman-based company that runs factories in China, where most of the world’s eyeglass frames are manufactured.

YCC is led by Lihua Wang and her husband, Washington State University bioengineering professor Shulin Chen.

Cutbacks to Medicaid’s vision program also could cut into a successful prison program called Correctional Industries Optical Program, in which 64 inmates at the Airway Heights prison grind lenses and assemble eyeglasses for a small wage. The prison work is considered by state officials to be an effective way to give inmates job skills they can use in the marketplace, thereby reducing recidivism.

The adult portion of the program accounts for about 50 percent of the eyeglasses work, said Rowlanda Cawthon, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Corrections. There are no proposed cuts to the Medicaid program that provides eyeglasses to children.

“We can’t speculate on what kind of impact cutting Medicaid might have since the budget has not been passed,” Cawthon said.

Jim Stevenson, a spokesman for the Department of Social and Health Services, said cuts may be inevitable as every department scours for savings.

“No one knows for sure and we’re not going to speculate on what it means for individual programs,” Stevenson said.

The governor is scheduled to release a second budget plan this month and has promised it would include ways to find money and save programs.

While funding problems could trouble the Medicaid vision program, Jones believes it will be temporary because having good vision is so important in the workplace.

“We have to believe it’s going to work out,” he said.

In Spokane, large retailer LensCrafters has the biggest market share, followed by Spokane Eye Clinic.