As I write to you today, we are all in the midst of a rapidly evolving situation and historic public health emergency. On March 11, the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, and, on March 13, the President of the United States declared a national emergency.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. The virus was first detected in China, and has now been detected in more than 100 locations internationally, including the United States. Reported illnesses have ranged from very mild or no symptoms to severe, including illness resulting in death. Those more at risk of severe illness include older adults and those with serious chronic medical conditions. At present, there is no vaccine available to protect us against COVID-19 and no medications approved to treat it other than palliative care.
The CDC predicts widespread transmission of the virus in the United States will occur and in the coming months, most of the U.S. population will be exposed. This could translate into an overwhelmed healthcare system and devastating effects to our economy.
At present, global efforts are focused on lessening the spread of the virus and reducing the impact of this disease. California Governor, Gavin Newsom, declared a State of Emergency to make additional resources available, formalize emergency actions already underway, and help the state prepare for broader spread of COVID-19. Newsom also issued a “stay at home” order for all California residents.
As health care professionals, it is our duty to follow public health guidelines to help limit the spread of disease and help “flatten the curve”. Under governor Newsom’s guidelines, comprehensive eye examinations are considered non-essential services. The COA has strongly recommended that optometrists practicing in California voluntarily suspend nonessential or nonurgent optometry care temporarily. Optometrists should reschedule routine eye exams and be available for urgent, non-routine care.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having an immediate and devastating impact on the practice of our profession, and this is a challenging time for many of us. In response to these challenges, the Governor, AOA, COA, and SDCOS has responded in the following ways:
- Governor Newsom has announced that the Department of Consumer Affairs has the authority to waive CE requirements for health professions for the next 60 days.
- Over 10 hours of Free CE for COA members (Emergen-CE on the COA website)
- Free practice support webinar offered on the COA website
- Expanded telehealth options
- Free Legal Advice: COA members are eligible for 30 minutes of attorney services for free each month.
- All dues/assessments will be waived for two months for all members. If you are not a current member, I encourage you join today to take advantage of all the resources AOA, COA and SDCOS are offering during this time. New member dues will be waived until June 1, 2020.
Due to guidelines regarding social distancing, Legislative Day has been cancelled. The California Legislature is in emergency recess now with lawmakers practicing social distancing. When they resume, legislators may be asked to prioritize their bills, or drop any bills unrelated to the crisis. The main focus of the Legislature will be passing a budget.
Due to deteriorating economic conditions tied to the spread of the virus, COA’s request for increasing Medi-Cal reimbursement rates is no longer possible this year and eyeglasses coverage for adults under Medi-Cal is in jeopardy. We will not know for sure until the governor releases his revised budget proposal on May 15. Considering the current situation, COA has prioritized advocacy of the following issues:
- Online CE – COA has been advocating that the State Board of Optometry allow all hours as online CE during this crisis. The State Board of Optometry does not have the authority to do this without an order by the Governor. COA has been pushing for such an order.
- Small business relief – COA will be advocating for financial relief for optometric offices when the Legislature returns. COA also continues to advocate for an exemption from AB 5, legislation passed last year to increase restrictions on independent contracting. This crisis has put enormous pressure on optometry offices and AB 5 limits an optometrist’s ability to recover because it prevents most optometrists from being independent contractors.
- Financial assistance for optometry schools – COA will also be advocating for emergency funding for the optometric schools and colleges that have effectively been shut down by the crisis.
- Telehealth – COA will continue to advocate for new rules that make it easier for doctors to provide services via telehealth. Newsom has already directed that commercial and Medi-Cal managed care plans must allow members to obtain health care via telehealth when medically appropriate to do so. Providers will be reimbursed at the same rate, whether a service is provided in-person or through telehealth.
We have a tough road ahead of us, but please don’t forget that we are all in this together. We will be sending out updates as new developments arise, but you can always visit the SDCOS and COA websites for updated information. It is important to stay positive during this time, as we do our part to protect one another and overcome these difficult times. “Difficult roads often lead to the most beautiful destinations.” -Zig Ziglar.