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Sat., Feb. 11, 2012, midnight

Editorial: Legislators see the light on charity eyeglasses

Call this a case of good government fixing bad government after it makes a spectacle of itself.

Last year, the Washington Board of Optometry issued a new interpretation of federal law that banned the donation of eyeglasses to needy people without a prescription.

The Union Gospel Mission in Spokane had been handing out donated glasses since 1985, but suddenly had to shut down its operation. Lions International’s Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling was also told that it could not give glasses to people who did not have a prescription for them.

These humanitarian ventures would recycle the glasses by cleaning them up and categorizing them by prescription type. Then charitable optometrists would match the glasses to needy people who didn’t have vision coverage or the money to purchase new prescription lenses.

The state board put a halt to this, saying, “Federal law dictates that prescription spectacle lenses must be dispensed by prescription.” One of the rationales was that the government could not allow lower quality vision services for the poor than others.

That might’ve made some sense if the recipients were somehow being harmed or were complaining. But the board said it wasn’t aware of any complaints about recycled glasses.

As a result, this “equal standard of care” ruling led to no care at all.

The need for eyeglass recycling has become heightened because the state stopped providing glasses to Medicaid patients due to budget cuts. Apparently, this lower standard of care passes muster with regulators. So along with no longer delivering glasses, the state prevented charities from filling the gap in coverage.

If the optometry board had focused on the consequences of its ruling, perhaps it could’ve lobbied for the legal changes it felt were needed without interrupting the service.

But it didn’t, so it was left to Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to take up the cause and lead a common-sense bill through his chamber with a 46-0 vote. A House bill also sailed through without opposition, but it includes hearing aids. So the differences will have to be reconciled.

If all goes well, charities like the Union Gospel Mission can start dispensing its backlog of more than 10,000 pairs of glasses as soon as June. It was short-sighted to make them stop in the first place.

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