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ST. LOUIS—With federal guidance advising only essential procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Optometric Association (AOA) said it had petitioned the National Association of Vision Care Plans (NAVCP) for practical, temporary relief throughout the national coronavrus emergency. In a March 23 letter to the NAVCP, which is posted on its website, the AOA cited profession-wide disruption from doctors of optometry limiting their practice to emergent care only or closing altogether as a result of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) guidance for only essential procedures during this pandemic, in an appeal for additional flexibility among traditional vision plan requirements.

The AOA requested visions plans first consider delaying these communications and extending credentialing requirements. As current circumstances dictate restricted practices or office closures, there is a high likelihood that many doctors will miss these communications or deadlines. The AOA asked NAVCP and its member plans to consider: extending deadlines for recredentialing and/or revalidating doctors' credentials for vision plan networks for three months, that they refrain from requesting doctors verify their credentials or directory information for three months, and that they provide a dedicated single toll-free phone number, email address and/or online form for doctors to voluntarily self report temporary practice updates that can be added immediately, with the date of update, to online network provider directories.

Additionally, the AOA requested temporary revisions in plan administration, such as the temporary changes that the CMS announced to provide greater access to care. These CMS actions included waiving application fees, postponing all revalidation actions and expediting pending or new applications from providers, as well as now requiring Medicare Advantage plans to cover services for enrollees at out-of-network facilities and to charge enrollees affected by the emergency no more than they would pay for in-network services. CMS is expanding telehealth services during the crisis to provide greater access to Medicare beneficiaries, the AOA pointed out.

"We believe vision plans should provide the same flexibility," reads the letter from AOA president Barbara L. Horn, OD. "Due to many offices being closed, both patients and doctors need some relief from traditional restrictions."

In a March 26 response to the AOA's request, the NAVCP sent a letter, signed by Julian Roberts, NAVCP executive director, stating, "I can assure you that the safety and care of those insured by our member plans and the provider community they serve is top of mind and a major part of their ongoing crisis management. As you know, vision care plans are dealing with significant issues including staff transitions to work from home and ensuring operational and secure communication channels are in place.”

He added, “Although vision care plans are facing adversity, they understand the importance of patient continuation of care and the need to protect participating network providers. I have shared your letter with all of our plans and they are appreciative of your thoughts on how they can better support patients and providers. All plans have different business models and benefit designs and it would be difficult to expect all plans to address your suggestion in the same way. However, each plan is committed to addressing provider community needs with the easing of policies to address patient and provider plans on an as needed basis."

In fact, individual NAVCP member plans received the same letter from the AOA and responded individually.  As of noon ET, Tuesday, April 1, VMAIL learned hat the following plans have posted their responses and accommodations for AOA members and other providers on their own plan websites, including  Avesis, EyeMed, EyeQuest, MES Vision, Versant, VSP, United Healthcare Vision and Aetna Vision (in development).