Black Belt to receive better eye care

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Governor Riley’s Black Belt Action Commission lived up to the “Action” part of its name in the critical field of eye care recently, announcing the formation of the new Black Belt Eye Care Consortium.

The Consortium is a new alliance of existing organizations, like Sight Savers of Alabama or the Rural Alabama Diabetes and Glaucoma Initiative (RADGI), that have already begun providing eye care in the Black Belt. But where these organizations have largely worked independently of each other in the past, they will now share their resources, information, and efforts in the Consortium.

“Proper eye care is a dire necessity for children and adults,” Artur Davis, Congressman and Chairman of the Action Commission’s Health Committee, said in a public statement. “I am very pleased that these groups have decided to work together to being to deliver a sense of normalcy to the lives of adults and children who would otherwise struggle at the most basic tasks in life.”

“This is a direct achievement of the Governor’s Black Belt Action Commission,” he added, “and I am hopeful that there will be many more to follow.”

What the Consortium means in practical terms for Black Belt residents is easier access to all facets of eye care, such as screening, referral, treatment, and follow-up. According to Jeff Haddox, president of Sight Savers and co-Project Manager for the Consortium, one example would be the temporary clinic scheduled for late March in Lowndes County.

“The Community Care Network is having a health fair in Hayneville, with pediatricians available for those in need,” he said. “What we’ll do is have a contingent of ophthalmologists show up, doctors from UAB like Dr. Martin Cogen, who work with the UAB Eye Foundation and specialize in pediatric ophthalmology. They’ll set up an eye care clinic in conjunction with the Community Care Network, and we can refer the children who have failed vision screenings in the area to that clinic.”

The Consortium also helps Sight Savers identify area children in need of the organization’s referral services and financial assistance.

“What Sight Savers does is provide complete free eye care to children in low-income families,” Haddox said. “We send the child for an exam, we get them the treatment they need whether it’s glasses, surgery, medications, and coordinate their follow-up care…we try to keep kids from falling through the cracks. We have a number of children in Hale County we’re folliwng up on right now who were screened by the Vision Research Corporation, another member of the Consortium. We will be arranging for them to see a doctor over the next several weeks.”

Another Consortium program providing Sight Savers with referrals is FocusFirst, in which trained college students screen children in HeadStart and other day care programs. Sight Savers is now working with 15 children in Greene County and 10 in Hale, with “more to come” across the Black Belt, according to Haddox.

Haddox added that the presence of doctors like Cogen at the Community Care Network fairs, or the collaboration between FocusFirst and Sight Savers in Greene County, would not have happened without the collaborative effect of the Consortium.

“We only started serving the Black Belt this year,” he said. “The Commission got us all talking, and has really gotten us together. There are now opportunities where a child who might have no doctor can go to a clinic, can go to one of these health fairs and receive care. So many organizations are working together now…I’m really excited.”

The next health fair scheduled for the immediate area will be in Perry County in April. Haddox could not confirm that Sight Savers would be represented–he said that scheduling usually waited until a month or less beforehand–but was optimistic. Events like the fairs are only one of the many activities that will be part of the Consortium’s new master calendar for eye care in the Black Belt, which Special Projects Coordinator to the Health Committee Chad Nichols said should be available soon. One glance would tell either those in need of eye care or those providing services where and when the next opportunity to receive services or serve would be.

“These are five or six organizations that all have some resources invested in caring for the Black Belt,” Nichols added. “We’re bringing them all to the same table, getting them talking, and they’re really opening things up.”