by Meredith Stallone, SUNY Optometry Trustee-elect

by Meredith Stallone, SUNY Optometry Trustee-elect

When I think of the American Optometric Association, the first word that comes to mind is advocacy. The AOA Board of Trustees’ newest elected member, Ronald L. Benner, O.D., embodies what it means to be an advocate for optometry. Dr. Benner has served on the AOA-Political Action Committee since 2008 and was committee chair from 2010 until his recent election to the AOA Board of Trustees. He is also a past president of the Montana Optometric Association. I had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Benner about the importance of advocacy and how students can be directly involved in protecting our profession. Thank you, Dr. Benner, for all you have done to support optometry and congratulations on your recent election!

What is one goal you would like to help accomplish as a member of the AOA Board of Trustees?

The last several AOA meetings and Presidents’ Councils have had a lot of discussion about membership retention, mainly transition of student AOA members (current AOSA members) and conversion of them from the AOSA affiliate to state affiliate membership.

Dr. Benner

Dr. Benner

This is an area where I believe I can help. AOSA members who have attended the Congressional Conference know the importance of their AOA membership. Those students transfer into state affiliate at a much higher rate than non-attendees. When I started on the AOA-PAC Board, the student participation rate was hovering between two and three percent. Over several years the AOAPAC Board has met with and educated student leaders and AOSA members about AOA-PAC and the importance of PAC’s role within AOA’s advocacy program. It was a lot of work. Every meeting was not fun, but the work paid off. AOSA brought their participation level up to a high of 22 percent in 2013 and has been around 18 to 19 percent the past few years.

The growth in AOA-PAC dollars was tremendous but the real value was in awareness of the role of advocacy and the importance of the AOA as optometry’s advocate. Over the next few years I will be working very hard, along with the rest of the AOA Board to continue to increase the awareness of student members and help them understand their role in optometry’s future as AOA members.

What makes it important for student members of AOSA to continue their membership with the AOA after graduation?

It’s about the future of their chosen profession. Without continued participation in the AOA, optometry is put at risk. Advocacy works because we can speak with one voice – one very strong voice representing a large percentage of the profession. If AOA’s voice only represents a very small percentage of those practicing or is fractured in multiple smaller splinter groups, the strength of that strong single voice is lost.

Many gains have been made at the state and national levels because of unity and common goals. If we have a transition rate of less than 50 percent to state affiliates, and thus the AOA, after graduation, the outlook could be bleak. It’s easy to say, “What has the AOA done for me?” But the truth behind the answer, while I believe is grossly apparent, is easy to look past unless each and every stu- dent understands the history of the profession.

Without the AOA where would scope of practice be? Refractive only, maybe? Limited or no insurance participation? No Medicare, VA or other federal service participation? Maybe a practice act that is controlled by another profession? Limited if any therapeutic prescriptive rights? These are things that most students take for granted.

Remember, however, all of these professional opportunities did not just happen; they were earned by hard work and perseverance of AOA members, state affiliates, AOA and affiliate staff and other AOA-related participation. How different would our profession be without the AOA? How different will our profession be without participation by new young optometrists?

If everyone would have left it up to someone else because they were busy with other parts of their life, I wonder where my patients would be getting their ocular health needs taken care of. I wonder what my peers from my optometry class would be doing. I wonder if the profession would exist in any semblance of what it has evolved into.

Advocacy works because we can speak with one voice – one very strong voice representing a large percentage of the profession.

Why is it important for students to transfer to state affiliates and continue their AOA membership?

Because the profession needs them along with their energy and enthusiasm to meet and hopefully exceed each of their professional goals and opportunities. After all it’s going to be your profession for much longer than for those who are my age.

As former chair of the AOA Political Action Committee (AOA-PAC) why do you recommend students participate in the AOA’s Congressional Advocacy Conference in Washington, DC?

The CAC in DC is a learning ground for advocacy. Each of your schools and institutions tries their best to educate you in patient care and management through multiple classes, clinics and patient experiences. The CAC is just one of the ways the AOA tries to educate the soon-to-be graduates on the role of advocacy at the federal level. It’s hands-on and direct. The education on your right to petition your elected officials, the experience of attending a Capitol Hill meeting with AOA Keypersons and the potential lifelong connections made by meeting those politically experienced and battle-hardened ambassadors of the profession sent by each state will be memorable.

Those lucky enough to attend then have the responsibility to share their experience with classmates about the power of AOA advocacy and the role each of us play in it. This year, the AOA secured a historic win for optometry by solidifying optometry’s physician role in Medicare.

Why is it important for students to get involved with advocacy for our profession?

Optometry has not always been included in Medicare. Being included in the definition of “physician” has kept us in the game and at the table for the future. There will be more challenges to come.

We still have not achieved equality in Medicaid because of the federal wording and definition of a physician in the Medicaid law. This battle continues and the next outcomes could positively or negatively affect their practices for years to come.

Without a large, united, single voice representing all optometrists that is supported by all optometrists as AOA members, the strength of that voice will be diminished. None of us want this. None of us can afford the potential consequences.

If you could go back and give yourself as an optometry student one piece of advice, what would it be?

Listen and learn from those who preceded you. They don’t have all the answers and can’t predict the future but they certainly know some of the next questions and the direction to take. My path could have been smoother if I’d paid attention and listened. I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel all by myself.

Each of you will be on your own path in the near future but you are not alone. You have a family with all the other professionals around you. Join with them and learn how to be ready to continue to move this wonderful profession forward.

Plan on continued participation in the AOA family the AOA and your state affiliate need you as much as you need them. Put some effort into organized optometry. The benefits you get out of participation may astound you.