Durham opposes eye-exam measure

County notifies local legislators

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2006 

Durham County is the latest addition to a growing list of opponents to a new state law requiring schoolchildren to have eye exams.

The county's Board of Commissioners drafted a letter to local legislators this week objecting to the law, which requires all public school children to have a comprehensive eye exam before entering kindergarten.

The law, which won approval with the support of House Speaker Jim Black, an optometrist, has been criticized by numerous medical and educational organizations across the state.

In its letter, the Durham County board aligned itself with the N.C. School Boards Association, the N.C. Pediatric Association, the N.C. Society of Eye Physicians & Surgeons and the N.C. School Superintendents Association, to name a few.

At a work session this week, commissioners said they objected to the manner in which the law was approved and the expense associated with it.

"There was really no public discussion of the merits of the issue, which will affect hundreds of thousands of children," said Ellen Reckhow, the board's chairwoman.

A chief complaint is the cost of the program. The eye exams cost, on average, $100 to $120, an expense likely to create financial hardship for many North Carolinians, critics have said.

Medicaid will cover exams for some poor children, and legislators created a $2 million fund to pay for exams for about 10,000 children whose families' incomes are too high to qualify for federal health insurance assistance.

Still, many parents will have to pay for the exams, which Black has said are necessary to catch early eye problems.

Durham officials say that they would like vision screening to be incorporated into child health checkups but that it shouldn't be an obstacle to education.

County Commissioner Becky Heron said that although she is not in favor of the law as written, she thinks eye trouble may be at the root of the academic struggles of some children.

"When I see the number of kids who are having trouble in school, I can't help but think that a lot of that could be kids not hearing or kids not seeing," she said. "There ought to be some middle ground; put a chart up there to see if they can see the big letter or the small letter."

Staff writer Eric Ferreri can be reached at 956-2415 or eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com.

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