Eye exams are important for early detection of vision problems.
(Photo: Adam R Bird for USA TODAY)
(USA TODAY) -- The gradual loss of eyesight can affect more than your quality of life. It can impact your wallet too.
According to a study published by Prevent Blindness America, National Opinion Research Center specialists at the University of Chicago determined the nation's annual cost of eye and vision disorders is about $140 billion. That makes it more costly than three of the top seven major chronic illnesses, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer. Eye problems cost only about $51.4 billion in 2007, meaning a more than $80 billion increase in five years.
"I think a lot of chronic conditions get a little more attention," says John Wittenborn, study author and research scientist at the university's research center. "What people don't realize is that some of those boring conditions (like eye disorders) really account for the bulk of medical costs in our country."
The eye problems people face range from slight sight impairments requiring glasses or contacts to macular degeneration, glaucoma and blindness.
Jeff Todd, chief operating officer of Prevent Blindness America, says only a portion of the increase is directly related to new technology and treatments similar to Lucentis, a new drug for age-related macular degeneration. The bulk stems from long-term care in older patients with diseases such as glaucoma.
"The longer you live with a vision problem, the more expensive it gets," he says. "Eye disorders are ranked fifth for highest cost, yet we're not getting that attention. No one dies from eye disorders, but they greatly impact quality of life."
The federal government does cover a portion of the nation's financial burden at $47.4 billion while insurance companies cover $20.8 billion in direct medical costs and $1.3 billion for long-term costs. Yet, patients and their families still foot most of the bill, spending about $71.6 billion, or $238 per-person per-year.
Todd added that the best way to deflect further increases in the cost is preventive eye care and more research. However, he says funding directly connected to prevention is the" biggest challenge," especially after changes made to the national budget in March.
"What's lacking is early detection or early diagnoses. Vision problems are detected too late," Wittenborn says. "Right now we can't restore vision; we can only retain vision that has not been lost, and (preventive care) can really save and prevent people from losing a significant amount of vision and money."
Some health research received an increase in government funding, including the Department of Defense's Vision Trauma Research Program. But the National Eye Institute received a $36 million cut in its $703 million budget, resulting in a possible loss of about 90 grants, "any one of which could hold the promise for saving or restoring vision," according to the National Alliance for Eye and Vision website.
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Preventive care's future, on the other hand, may be a bit brighter after President Obama's Affordable Care Act kicks-in. Not only will it provide affordable health care, but it will also guarantee pediatric vision care, which "many insurance companies today don't pay for," Wittenborn says. "Filling in the gap in this underserved population will go a long way in preventing future vision loss."
This change will cause a slight increase in the cost of vision care. But Wittenborn says the increase won't be long-lasting when considering the alternative of continuing long-term treatment with aging generations and rising costs.
"From our perspective, we are really going to emphasize the importance of early prevention," Todd says. Otherwise "the cost will continue to rise at a pretty significant rate."