Ithaca Free Clinic adds free optometry services

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Earlier this year, the Ithaca Health Alliance’s Ithaca Free Clinic introduced its first free optometry clinic, bringing optometry services to the underinsured and those without insurance in Ithaca and throughout the county.

The Ithaca Free Clinic (IFC) provides free healthcare services with the goal of helping those who need it most, said Ithaca Health Alliance (IHA) Executive Director Norbert McCloskey.

“These men and women need to have access to healthcare,” he said. “If we don’t provide this service, it’s a huge drain in terms of healthcare costs, lost productivity, and it really impacts the quality of life for those individuals who are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot pay to see a doctor.”

Though the clinic has been around for a couple decades, it wasn’t until this past spring that it offered optometry services. Providing vision services was always a desire, but what allowed it to become a reality started with Dr. Ted Bryant, owner of Clarity Eye Care in Dryden and member of the Ithaca Lions Club.

The Ithaca Lions Club was founded in 1951 to provide services for sight, hearing and children’s needs in Ithaca. The group holds regular meetings, many featuring speakers related to these needs, and at one presentation in the spring of 2018, McCloskey came to speak about IHA and IFC.

“I had no idea that the clinic even existed up to that point,” Bryant said. “The whole time that he’s talking about all the different services that are offered, I happened to notice that there were no eye care services on that list.”

After that presentation, Bryant approached McCloskey offering to partner the Lions Club with the IFC to meet the community’s unmet vision needs while promoting the Lions Club mission of vision care.

“Vision is so critical to well-being,” Bryant said. “It’s so critical for an individual’s quality of life. If you can’t see, you can’t learn. You can’t learn, you can’t fill out a job application, you can’t read the instructions on your medication. There are so many people that struggle with day-to-day activities for the lack of something as simple as a pair of eyeglasses.”

Despite this need, Bryant said, vision care is not often covered by insurance plans.

“Many times, even people who have health insurance don’t have coverage for vision care because, let’s face it, no one’s life is at risk if they can’t see, so a lot of times, the healthcare dollars get diverted to other, more chronic conditions that can cause disability or mortality,” he said.

McCloskey said he was excited when Bryant approached him because it meant being able to fill a gap in IFC services that’s existed for quite some time. The clinic conducts free employment physicals, for example, and part of that includes a standard eye exam, but that used to be where vision care would stop.

“People would fail that eye exam, and we wouldn’t know how to get them help,” he said. “We didn’t know where to send them. And so, this was just a perfect, perfect partnership that would allow us to provide a service to our patients that they didn’t have access to and an opportunity to work with another community-based organization that shared a similar mission.”

Bryant said it was a win-win for the Lions Club, too.

“The Lions Club had the funding and the resources in order to provide equipment, but one thing we didn’t have was a place to do it,” Bryant said.

IFC had an underutilized room that was converted into an optometry clinic space, which is now open once a month. Equipment is paid for by the Lions Club, and the clinic is staffed by about a dozen volunteer optometrists and opticians, including Bryant.

“Ted and the Lions Club have been instrumental in finding optometrists and opticians who will share one day a month with the clinic to provide these services to our patients who need them,” McCloskey said. “These are individuals who are driving and traveling from long distances to make sure that the patients that come through our doors get the kind of quality eye care they need.”

Providing the equipment was one thing, but making sure that patients could be provided with free prescription lenses and frames was another challenge in itself. Bryant said that Trumansburg Lions Club member Dawn Young worked with lens company Essilor to provide frames and lenses for the clinic at no cost to the patient.

McCloskey said the partnership proved mutually beneficial and the clinic is relatively inexpensive for both parties involved. The optometry clinic absorbs the administrative and space usage costs of the IFC, and the only cost to the staff is time.

“That was the joy of this relationship,” McCloskey said. “We have a very high-value program doing great work here for the community and the members who need this service for virtually no cost other than the volunteer time and those kinds of in-kind donations that allow the clinic to function.”

When the optometry clinic first opened, McCloskey said the IFC didn’t widely publicize it because he and others wanted to make sure they could service everyone that signed up for an appointment. Since the need is so strong in the community for these services, he didn’t want the clinic to be overloaded too quickly.

But even with that soft opening, the clinic was quickly booked and had to put people on waiting lists. So far, the clinic has served around 70 patients.

“We continually fill our schedule well in advance and have virtually no no-shows,” McCloskey said.

Bryant and the other staff at the optometry clinic enjoy the chance to provide an essential service to anyone who needs it, he said, and the county is better when everyone has good vision care.

“To me, I look at providing eye care and eyeglasses and primary eye care as really a hand up, not a handout,” he said. “It’s a way to hand people health to get them to a better place in life and get them more productive and better themselves. It’s a service to society, really.”

McCloskey and Bryant said that the clinic is rather new right now, but they hope to expand the clinic in the future. Right now, the clinic provides optician and optometrist services but not ophthalmologist care.

Opticians are licensed to take an eye prescription and find a frame and lens system for it, Bryant described. Optometrists are trained and licensed to perform comprehensive eye exams, prescribe glasses and contacts, diagnose eye diseases and treat eye conditions that don’t require surgery. Ophthalmologists perform eye surgery. Thus, without ophthalmologists in the clinic, patients cannot receive free eye surgery, so McCloskey said he’s hoping the clinic can expand to bring in those services.

McCloskey said he’d also like to bring in more volunteer opticians and have the clinic open twice a month.

Another area the clinic hopes to fill in the future is children’s care. Right now, the optometry clinic only services adults 18 and over, but McCloskey said he hopes to expand services to children in the near future.

Overall, both the Lions Club and the IFC expressed gratitude for the partnership and being able to provide free vision services to the county.

“I love how you have two different organizations both with kind of a similar mission that realized we both had resources that could work well together,”

Bryant said. “The synergy has really allowed things to move forward.”

There are no means tests or residency requirements at the Ithaca Free Clinic. Vision exams are by appointment only. Call 607-330-1254 to schedule an appointment. Appointments are limited, but there is a waiting list.

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