Bill mandates eye exams for all kids (though most don’t need it)
You wouldn’t think a bill that passed the state Legislature with 109 votes in favor and none against, boasting 30 sponsors and co-sponsors, would have even a bit of opposition.
And you wouldn’t think that the one group pushing back against it would be a professional association whose members stand to gain financially.
But such is the case for S2804, a bill now on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk that would require young children entering public schools or Head Start programs for the first time to have a comprehensive eye exam – to the chagrin of ophthalmologists, who along with optometrists could see a flood of pint-sized patients.
The bill says any child age 6 or under would have to get a comprehensive eye examination, not just a screening as now directed, by Jan. 1 of their first year of enrollment. The state health department would post lists of places where people could obtain free or reduced-price exams.
Matt Halpin, executive director of the New Jersey Academy of Ophthalmology, which represents eye surgeons in the state, said doctors oppose the bill because comprehensive exams are “a second step in the process” and that it would be better to put stronger standards on initial screenings.
“There’s about 100,000 kids that enter the school system every year, new students. Around 90% of them have absolutely no medical need for a comprehensive eye exam,” Halpin said.
“So that means if you do the math there’s 90,000 kids, each year, that are going to have to have a comprehensive eye exam – 60 to 90 minute exam in their doctor’s office, often with their parents taking off from work to get them there – that they absolutely do not need,” he said.
Kristan Gross, global executive director of the Vision Impact Institute, said the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians supports the bill, along with the New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey School Boards Association and New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
Gross said only one in three children in the United States have received eye care services before they turn 6 years old.
"While we firmly believe that vision screenings are of benefit in school systems, most current vision screenings performed in schools and by pediatricians are failing to identify vision disorders in children," Gross said. "Further, screenings don’t test the overall wellness of the eye."
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, said her 6-year-old is making progress after an eye problem was detected in a screening done by a pediatrician more than three years ago. She supported the bill to ensure more children are helped at a younger age.
“This is extremely important because if we’re able to have our kids have a correction eye vision at an early age, it’s much better for them than when they get older,” Pintor Marin said.
Halpin said a screening in school or by a family’s pediatrician is the appropriate first step. He said children who have trouble seeing the board in school or have issues flagged in a screening are then referred for comprehensive exams.
“The entire basis of health care and insurance is based on what is medically necessary, what is medically prudent. This bill forces a large segment of the population into an undue burden medically,” Haplin said.
“My organization stands to make money from a bill that requires more medical care,” he said. “We’re still opposed because it’s not the right thing for the kids.”
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said that even if 90% of kids aren’t found to have vision issues, the tests will have been of help to the other 10%.
“It’s always been my understanding and experience that indeed, we do any number of testing even though very small numbers of children would be affected by a certain disease or malady,” Schaer said.
The bill was passed by the Assembly last week, 72-0, with one vote to abstain. The Senate had passed it 37-0 in December.
It could take effect beginning in the coming school year, depending on when – and if – Gov. Phil Murphy signs it into law. He’ll have until the next time the Senate meets on July 7 or later to act on it; the bill becomes effective in the first full school year after it is signed.