Why you should care
Because the statistics could give you double vision.
America’s health care debate has suffered from a major oversight: vision care. For the most part, eye coverage is not included in the Affordable Care Act. Massive fundraising campaigns take on all kinds of cancer or rare diseases, but blindness does not have the same profile — even though it’s a growing problem.
The number of Americans with at least partial vision loss is set to double by 2050.
That’s according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which put out an eye-opening report last fall, with a call to action for the public to get serious about the problem and “eliminate correctable and avoidable vision impairment by 2030.” An estimated 4.24 million adults older than 40 have uncorrectable vision loss, a figure projected to rise to 8.96 million by 2050. And yet that’s a small sliver of the population at risk. Given that vision problems often go undiagnosed, reliable data is lacking, but one model in the NASEM report found that 90 million of the 142 million Americans older than 40 experience some form of vision impairment. Vision problems are worse among low-income people, who tend to have less access to health care.
Most of the surge in the coming years comes from the graying of the U.S. population, as macular degeneration and other maladies are closely tied to age. Our screen addictions don’t help. Ophthalmologist Elizabeth Yeu says excessive screen time has been linked to dry eye disease. “More severe forms can lead to vision loss,” she says. Which is not to say you should power down your computer or other electronic devices right now. “We should not be afraid of technology out of a fear of going blind,” Yeu says. “We just need to moderate use.”
Yeu is taking part in a nationwide public awareness campaign launching today called See America that aims to tick off one of the report’s recommendations. The idea is to encourage people to see an eye doctor regularly — like you do with the dentist, just less painful. The reason is a lot of vision loss — particularly cataracts or refractive errors — is preventable with early detection, and can be treated with medication, therapy or surgery. The diseases often appear without early symptoms.
See America is spearheaded by Allergan, a pharmaceutical giant with a long history in eye care. The multimillion-dollar campaign is set to include free eye screenings across the country, a big media splash and celebrity spokespeople. While the campaign is steeped in the language of altruism, Allergan does stand to make more money if more people are treated for vision problems. The company could also use some friendly public relations: Ireland-based Allergan was at the center of the corporate “inversion” debate last year, when a planned acquisition of Pfizer fell through amid tougher regulations on companies dodging taxes by moving overseas on paper. The pharmaceutical industry as a whole has been taking a public beating, including the scandal over outrageous prices for Mylan’s EpiPen and President Donald Trump demanding lower drug prices.
Herm Cukier, Allergan’s senior vice president of eye care, tells OZY that the campaign is about seizing an opportunity to chip away at a vision crisis, not “external noise and factors.” As newly empowered Republicans are eager to scrap Obamacare and replace it with something less costly, adding new vision coverage is a long shot. But Cukier hopes “policymakers stand up and take note” of the striking study — and the $139 billion economic impact of untreated vision problems. Perhaps then politicians will see the light.