By Congressman John Conyers, Jr.
Children growing up in low-income communities face many challenges. But there is one that should be simple to fix: making sure every child with vision problems has the glasses necessary to succeed in the classroom.
Seventeen percent of students screened last school year by the Detroit Health Department were identified as needing glasses, but less than 2 percent of those who failed the screening actually got glasses.
Many of these children struggle at school because they can’t see properly. One in five students have vision problems that can affect their ability to achieve in school, a number that amounts to nearly two million children nationwide. The problem is especially acute for children in low-income communities. One study in Los Angeles found that 95 percent of first-graders in low-income communities who needed glasses did not have them.
The impacts on these children are profound. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers. Studies indicate that vision problems not only lead to poor academic performance, but also tend to cause self-esteem issues and even anti-social behavior.
This should not be happening. Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Affordable Care Act all cover vision services for children. Every child is entitled under these programs to receive the glasses they need. The fact that millions of schoolchildren cannot see the board is actually about access to vision care, not coverage.
Thanks to the innovative work of community leaders in Detroit, the Detroit Public Health Department, the Detroit Public Schools and a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Vision To Learn, recently announced the launch of a new program designed to get glasses to children in need.
This new public-private partnership will bring mobile vision clinics to the Detroit schools where children in need of glasses spend their days. Instead of hoping that children find their way to a doctor’s office for a vision screening, the vision center will come to the student. If a screened child needs glasses, he or she will be provided with a stylish pair of their choosing—at no cost to the family. This entire effort costs about $100 per child; it represents a sound and savvy investment in our future.
Our challenge is to make sure that this kind of effort is sustainable over the long term and can be spread to other communities in Michigan and across the nation. While Vision To Learn is launching this program in Detroit through generous philanthropic donations, there are limits to what charities can do. A successful and expanded program requires us to rethink how vision services can be delivered to children. We need to ensure we do so in a manner that is efficient and eligible for reimbursement by federal and state programs.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should take note of what’s happening in Detroit and determine how the federal government can help expand these critical vision services to other jurisdictions in Michigan and throughout the country. When philanthropic efforts are combined with the innovative thinking of local government leaders like those in Detroit, we achieve great things for our communities and our children.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district.