By Marie Tetsu and Kira Wang
Cost can sometimes be a barrier to proper eye care, but a variety of programs offer free or low-cost eye exams and other resources. Are you eligible?
Most people rely on their sight every day, making eye care essential to our health. For people with diabetes, annual dilated eye exams are especially necessary to catch early signs of eye disease. But eye care can be expensive: adults with diabetes report that associated cost or a lack of insurance are some of the main reasons for not receiving eye care in the past year. While cost may prohibit people with diabetes from getting vital care, there are many programs that offer free or low-cost eye exams and glasses. Given the added financial burdens that so many people are facing as a result of COVID-19, we’ve built a list of resources designed to help people with diabetes and support those experiencing vision loss.
Note: to qualify for many of these resources, you or your family will need to meet certain criteria. Each organization has different requirements – which we’ve done our best to lay out – but be sure to check each website!
1. EyeCare America
EyeCare America offers medical eye exams to qualifying people in the United States, often with no out-of-pocket cost. Two main programs are included in EyeCare America: the Seniors Program and the Glaucoma Program.
- The Seniors Program connects people over the age of 65 with volunteer ophthalmologists in their area who provide free eye exams, and it offers up to one year of follow-up care for any diagnosed conditions. To qualify, you must:
- Be a US citizen or legal resident
- Not belong to a health maintenance organization (HMO) insurance plan or have Veterans Affairs (VA) eye care benefits
- Not have received an eye exam by an ophthalmologist in the last three years
- The Glaucoma Program provides a free glaucoma exam to qualifying people who are uninsured. If you have insurance you may still request an appointment through the program but will be responsible for any co-payments. To qualify, you must:
- Be a US citizen or legal resident
- Neither belong to an HMO nor have VA eye care benefits
- Not have had an eye exam in the last 12 months
- Be at an increased risk for glaucoma, which is true if you have diabetes, have a family history of glaucoma, are African American and over the age of 50, or are Hispanic and over the age of 65
Regardless of insurance coverage or income level, anyone can use the EyeCare America Drug Discount Card in English or Spanish. Unfortunately, EyeCare America does not cover eyeglasses or services such as surgical operations.
2. Lions Club International
Lions Club International provides access to eye care and assistance with purchasing glasses for people who are considered low income. The non-profit also offers classes and services for those who are blind or have limited vision. Lions Club presents many of these vision programs through OneSight eye care centers located across the US and around the world. Lions Club International also provides a limited number of vouchers for free glasses, and offers mobile eye care services to children. You can find your local Lions Club here.
3. VSP Eyes of Hope
Eyes of Hope through VSP Global provides eye care and gift certificates for eyeglasses to children, adults, and people affected by disaster. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, the distribution of new certificates is currently paused.
- For children: Sight for Students gift certificates provide free eye care and prescription glasses from a local optometrist to people under the age of 19. To qualify, children must have a family income at or below twice the Federal Poverty Level for their family size, and cannot have received care through VSP in the last 12 months. To acquire a gift certificate, parents can find a local partner here.
- For adults: Adults who make less than twice the Federal Poverty Level and have not received care from a VSP program in the past year are eligible for vouchers. Mobile Eye Care Clinics are also available to people but are suspended until 2021 due to COVID-19.
- For people affected by disaster: If you have been affected by a natural disaster (like fire, hurricane, tornado, or flooding), are in need of eyeglasses or eye care, and do not have vision insurance, you can qualify for a VSP gift certificate. Contact your local American Red Cross chapter.
Medicare Part B covers an annual dilated eye exam for people over the age of 65 with diabetes. Dilated eye exams are extremely important for monitoring vision in people with diabetes. Medicare does not provide free routine eye exams or eyeglasses. Under Medicare, you’ll pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount and the Part B deductible. If you are receiving care in a hospital outpatient setting, a co-payment is also required.
OneSight is an independent non-profit that provides eye exams and glasses to people, and establishes permanent vision centers around the US. People can take a free online vision exam here. While this online exam does not replace an in-person visit with an eye care professional, it can provide useful information about your sight.
6. New Eyes
New Eyes offers prescription eyeglasses to children and adults who are at or below 2.5 times the Federal Poverty guidelines. You can sign up with the help of a clinician or social worker and use vouchers on the New Eyes website.To qualify, you’ll need to meet the financial requirements, have had an eye exam within the last two years, and not have received other charitable or government resources to pay for eyeglasses. People financially affected by COVID-19 can apply directly here (without the help of a social worker or other health advocate).
7. Mission Cataract
Mission Cataract USA offers free cataract surgeries one day a year to people of all ages who have no insurance and don’t qualify for Medicare, Medicaid, or other forms of government support. Cataracts cause the lens in your eye tobecome cloudy, and your vision may become blurred or less vibrant. Aging is the most common cause of cataracts, however, people with diabetes have a higher risk of developing cataracts.
8. Operation Sight
Operation Sight is another group that provides free cataract surgery to US citizens and permanent residents. To qualify, you must be at or below twice the Federal Poverty Level, and uninsured or underinsured (this would indicate that your insurance does not cover cataract surgery). If you receive Medicare Part B you will not be eligible. You must also have a formal cataract diagnosis. Fill out this form to find out if you qualify.
9. Support Groups for Vision Loss
If your vision, or that of a family member’s, has been harmed by diabetes-related eye disease or other causes, you might consider joining a vision loss support group. VisionAware helps adults adjust to life with vision loss. Whether in-person or online, support groups can offer a space to share your stories and concerns, and it is a space to learn from others with similar experiences. Check out VisionAware’s featured support groups here and find your local chapter.
Learn more about the risks diabetes poses to eye health in our recent article, “Seeking Healthy Vision: Eight Strategies For Caring for Eyes.” If you meet the qualifications of any of the programs we’ve listed, make sure to inquire and apply. Prioritize your vision and keep your eyes as healthy as possible for a long lifetime of use!
Marie Tetsu is a rising senior at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, California. She is an eye-care enthusiast, and has been wearing prescription eyeglasses for the past ten years. In college, Marie plans to double major in English and Biochemistry on the pre-med track.
Kira Wang graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University with a degree in psychology and minors in biology and chemistry. At Duke, she wrote a senior thesis on the coping strategies of parents and youths with chronic illness and spent over two and a half years researching retinal imaging techniques in the Duke Eye Center. She’s currently taking a gap year and plans to go to medical school.