Since 1985, the Union Gospel Mission has helped improve the vision of thousands of poor and uninsured people by dispensing donated eyeglasses at its weekly free vision clinic founded by the late optometrist and humanitarian Walt Michaelis.
Every Thursday the clinic sees eight to 10 people “who could not get glasses any other way,” said Linda Bates, a volunteer at the Mission.
But for the past year, recycled glasses – verified, cleaned and catalogued by prescription – have been piling up at the Walt Michaelis Clinic because of the Washington Board of Optometry’s recent interpretation of federal law, which prevents them from being distributed to the people who need them.
“Federal law dictates that prescription spectacle lenses must be dispensed by prescription,” Chairman Michael VanBrocklin wrote last December.
VanBrocklin’s letter reaffirmed the board’s answer in response to a question last summer by Lions International’s Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center. Lisa Hodgson, executive director for the optometry board, said she was not aware of any complaints about the distribution of recycled glasses statewide.
“Nevertheless, we find the dispensing of used prescription lenses very problematic and cannot condone a lower standard of care for the less fortunate,” VanBrocklin’s letter said.
Concerned about liability, optometrists at the mission stopped dispensing donated eyewear for temporary use. The clinic continues to offer exams, but patients needing corrective lenses are referred to for-profit optometric offices.
Affordable Optics, LensCrafters and PearleVision, which this week held a free clinic in Spokane Valley, have been helping out by donating eyewear to the clinic’s patients. But the demand exceeds the availability of such charity, particularly since the state stopped providing lenses to Medicaid patients last year.
“We need to figure out a solution,” said Brett Hagen, optometrist at Garland Vision Source, the private practice Michaelis founded in 1949.
He and other optometrists would like to raise the issue with the state Legislature next year. They are hoping for a law similar to one that passed this year in Oregon that protects some charities from liability for providing recycled eyeglasses and hearing aids to the poor in some circumstances.
The Oregon legislation was sought by the Lions Club International, which collects donated glasses for distribution overseas but has been stymied in its efforts to do so in the United States.
Meanwhile, with the help of its volunteer optometrists, the Union Gospel Mission will continue to do the best it can to serve the vision needs of the community’s most vulnerable residents, operations manager Dave Wall said.
“If it wasn’t for the UGM vision clinic, I’m really not sure where people would go for their eye care needs,” he said. “For us to be able to continue to utilize donated glasses would greatly enhance our services.”