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California Prison Optometry Labs Under Pressure to Do Better

by Jo Ellen Nott

In August 2022, Senate Bill 1089 moved forward in the California Assembly, seeking to cut long turnaround times for eyeglasses made by prisoners working in the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA). If passed, the legislation will allow Medi-Cal clinics for low-income families to bypass the slow-running prison labs and order glasses from retail labs. 

Medi-Cal’s contract with CALPIA has been in place since 1988, but due to complications from pandemic lockdowns, the partnership has gone sour. Participant families and their eye care providers claim that they often wait months for their glasses, which then sometimes arrive broken or with the lenses incorrectly ground. 

Many of the recipients of eyeglasses in the Medi-Cal program are children who need the eyeglasses to function in daily life and be successful at school. Kelly Hardy, of the child advocacy group Children Now, agrees there’s value in having CALPIA teach prisoners optical lab skills, but she says the arrangement mustn’t come at the expense of kids not being able to see. 

In January 2020, Medi-Cal expanded vision benefits to adults. As a result, orders for glasses from Medi-Cal to prison optometry labs rose dramatically from 490,000 in 2019 to 880,400 in 2021. The perfect storm of pandemic lockdowns in California’s prisons and a huge increase in optical orders led to over half of Medi-Cal patients having to wait one to three months for their glasses to arrive. Meanwhile, the average turnaround time for glasses made in private labs was less than two weeks. 

CALPIA spokesperson Michele Kane said prior to the pandemic, orders were filled five days after the labs received them. But during the pandemic, the turnaround time began to slip, reaching its worst point in January 2021 with a 37-day average to fill an order. Kane reported that turnaround times improved by April 2021, and in July 2022 they returned to pre-pandemic order fulfillment time. 

SB1089 will come with a big price tag. Eyewear from private labs costs 141% more than CALPIA’s products. Medi-Cal pays CALPIA about $19.60 for every pair of glasses made, a significant cost savings. 

CALPIA employs 295 prisoners in optical programs in three prisons, and the number will rise to 420 when the newest women’s optometric program is fully underway in late summer 2022.

Source:  Physicians Weekly

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