Eyeglass fund aims to fill gap for Portland schoolchildren

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PORTLAND — Representatives from Portland schools and businesses gathered Monday, Sept. 20, for the launch of a fund to subsidize eyeglasses for needy schoolchildren.

The impetus for Eyeglasses for Students came only a week earlier, after School Nurse Coordinator Amanda Rowe informed administrators there were no longer any Portland eye-care practitioners who would provide glasses to students with MaineCare insurance. 

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. was scheduled to address the Portland Regional Chamber last week, and he used it as an opportunity to talk about the situation.

Godfrey Wood, chief executive of the chamber, took action, and Morse left the meeting with a $1,000 pledge from the group as seed money for the new fund.

“Children with MaineCare who need eyeglasses are now being referred out to Biddeford, or beyond. Families (on MaineCare) can’t afford to make two or three trips there to receive services,” Morse said in a press conference at Portland High School. “… This is a crisis situation.”

Morse applauded the greater Portland business community for raising a total of $4,000 as of Monday. But he acknowledged this is a short-term fix and said he is hopeful that MaineCare will come up with a long-term solution.

There are different opinions, however, about what a long-term solution will look like.

Last one standing

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are 10 eye-care practices in Cumberland County that have open cases with MaineCare patients. One of the largest practices has been Casco Bay EyeCare, with five offices in greater Portland area, which last week decided it could no longer afford to dispense eyeglasses to MaineCare patients.

“Over the years,  all the other Portland-area eye-care providers (who see MaineCare patients) have, one-by-one, stopped dispensing eyeglasses because the DHHS reimbursement rate is so low,” said Rebecca Darling, group administrator at Casco Bay EyeCare.  The DHHS current reimbursement rate for dispensing eyeglasses is $14, she said, a recent increase from $8. She estimated the national reimbursement rate is $30-$40.

“They had been referring all of their MaineCare patients to us for dispensing. We were getting to the point that we would have needed to hire another full-time optician to fit glasses for not only our own MaineCare patients, but to service all the referrals we were getting as well,” Darling said.

She said the practice is working on finding other ways, outside of MaineCare, to help Portland schoolchildren receive the services they need. But she doesn’t expect Maine, with its budget issues, to raise reimbursement rates anytime soon.

In the meantime, Casco Bay EyeCare has agreed to offer free eye exams to children identified by Portland school nurses.

Dr. Michael Pirone, an optometrist on Brighton Avenue, is also working on finding vendors who might be able to provide no-charge frames to the children.

Rowe, the school nurse coordinator, said she hopes not only that will Casco Bay EyeCare will reverse it’s decision to no longer dispense eyeglasses for MaineCare patients, but that the state will recognize that there is a serious lack of access to services.

“The state is doing the best it can,” DHHS spokesman John Martins said. “Certainly access to services is a concern for us and we are looking to find solutions to help these children.”

Martins confirmed Tuesday that there are no MaineCare providers in the Portland area who are accepting new patients and dispensing eyeglasses. He encouraged MaineCare recipients with concerns to call member services at 1-800-321-5557.

“We are assessing our options and will continue to identify solutions,” Martins said.

But until a sustainable solution is found, the Eyeglasses for Students fund is at least a Band-Aid for Portland students who can’t afford eyeglasses. In addition to the students who carry MaineCare insurance, the fund will also be available for those who have no insurance.

Donations to the fund can be mailed to Portland Public Schools Eyeglass Fund, 196 Allen Ave., Portland, ME 04103.

Heather Gunther can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or hgunther@theforecaster.net