Sunday, May 17, 2009

Optical Disillusions

This is a personal story, but a cautionary tale for those of you who, like me, wear prescription eyeglasses.

I’ve been wearing glasses since I was six years old, which is when my mother figured out that my routinely bumping into light-colored furniture, mis-matching pastel-colored socks, and sitting a foot away from the TV, might indicate a vision problem. She was concerned that I’d never keep them on my face. But I was delighted with them and her only problem was getting me to take them off for showers and sleeping.

For the first time in my little life, the world didn’t look fuzzy, confusing and (consequently) scary. I still remember standing outside the optician’s on University Avenue in the Bronx after I got my first pair and thinking: “So this is what everything’s supposed to look like!” And except for that obligatory period in my teens when walking around in a blur was preferable to being seen in glasses, I’ve been happily and gratefully wearing them ever since. I didn’t even mind when reading glasses became necessary in my 40s. Seeing is so much better than not seeing. (I won’t bore you with why I couldn’t graduate to contacts.)

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was last week when, for the first time in at least ten years, I finally bought new glasses – sort of. I’d been trying to get them since last October, when I discovered that Medicare (which is what I have) will pay for them, but only one pair per year and only from a selection of “approved” (read: cheapest possible) frames. I had no problem with the once-a-year clause, but I need separate glasses for distance and reading because bi-focals don’t work for me.

I subsequently learned that Medicare will spring for a second pair if one’s ophthalmologist requests/approves it. However, there's a hitch (there’s always a hitch): the optometrists who accept Medicare are as rare as the proverbial hounds teeth, and those who do accept it want you to pay upfront and get reimbursed from Medicare. Since I didn’t have the money to lay out, I just kept squinting, reading with the aid of a magnifying glass and writing in 16-point type. Being broke sucks, and I'm hardly alone in being trapped by this coverage "catch 22."

Then, propitiously, last week I got a $250 stimulus payment and I felt like a little kid who had just been given a whole dollar! I considered the variety of things I might do with this unexpected bounty and decided that using it to get glasses made the most sense, and, I figured that with $250(!!!) I could either bypass Medicare or, at least, manage to wait for the reimbursement.

I went shopping. I went to Lens Crafters and Cohen’s Fashion Optical, both in my neighborhood, assuming that the chains would be cheaper than my trusted independent, the place I’d gone to throughout the 80s and 90s. At Lens Crafters, I discovered that all the attractive frames were in the “designer” section and cost between $200-$400, with $300 being the most common price. Resigned to settling for a cheaper frame (from among the myriad of small, wire-rimmed clones), I found that even those were $125-$150, and once the lenses were factored in, one pair came to about $200. Forget about the 2 for 1 deals and the coupons; if you're able to read the fine print, you'll discover that they probably don't apply to what you need.

I didn’t learn anything about the prices at Cohen’s, because after waiting there for 20 minutes among other potential customers ahead of me without my presence even being acknowledged, I got pissed off and left. I went back to Lens Crafters, only to discover that in the 40 minutes since I’d last been there, the price had gone up to between $250-$300 per pair, because, they said, they hadn’t included some of the little extras, like anti-glare coating (not to be confused with UV protection coating; that’s separate), which they said was $89.

Speechless with anger, I then went to three different chain drugstores in search of clip-on readers to see if they might suffice. I couldn’t find out because none of them had any. So I went home, dejected and perplexed. When had glasses become a $300 proposition with the cheap frames, easily $1,000 total for two pairs with nicer frames?

My next step was to search online to see what I could see (so to speak), and discovered that there’s a whole world of online prescription glasses retailers who have a wide variety of really nice looking stuff for very little money. By way of comparison, most frames ranged from $10 to $40 and on those sites that carried the designer brands, the frames that were $300 at Lens Crafters were $150 and less. And the $89 anti-glare coating? That was $4.95 (yes, four dollars and 95 cents). Some sites have better reputations than others for quality and delivery, but you can get a complete pair of cheaters with all the bells and whistles for way less than $100. All you have to do is provide your lens prescription and frame size.

As it happens, I had my lens prescription (courtesy of my ophthalmologist), but it was minus two important numbers: the PD (pupillary distance) figures, which are essential to making the correct lenses. I've learned that eye doctors routinely leave these numbers off the prescription so that the optometrist (hopefully the one with which he/she is affiliated) has a reason to give you another eye exam (price not included with the specs) when you go to buy your insanely overpriced glasses. As for the frame size, all the Web sites said there is usually a tiny set of numbers on one of the arms of the frame that constitutes the size. After careful scrutiny (bright light, magnifying glass), I realized that no such numbers were on my distance glasses. I don’t know if they’re on my reading glasses, because I couldn’t see the numbers without wearing my reading glasses!

All the sites said that if you ask your eye doctor for the PD numbers, they’re probably part of your prescription record and the doc should give it to you. My doctor, who’s a sweetheart, was willing to give me the PD number, but didn’t have it, because he doesn’t include it in his exam; he leaves that calculation to the optometrist (anyone, but preferably the one who shares his office…). However, he said that if I went to see her, she would give me the PD numbers at no charge.

Great! But my doctor’s office (the office of the best eye doctor available to me through my HMO-managed Medicare plan) is quite far from me, and I have mobility issues that make using public transportation a drag and financial issues that make taking taxis (my normal mode of transportation for decades) severely prohibitive.

So I called my old, neighborhood independent optician, the store I wanted to use in the first place, and asked what he would charge to give me a PD reading. $15 he said, and I said okay. When I got there, it occurred to me to ask how much it would cost to just get new lenses for my old frames, which I like and are in good condition. It turned out that with all extras included (like anti-glare coating…), he charged me $123 for the first pair, $103 for the second pair, threw in the PD determination for free, and gave me the PD numbers for my future reference. When I go to pick up my glasses, I’ll ask him to give me my frame size. He was very nice. We chatted at length about how the chains are a rip-off and everybody thinks they’ll be cheaper than the independents, but more often than not, they’re not. We also talked about how Internet retailing is changing many industries, including his, and he’s mindful that the bricks-and-mortar outlets are going to have to change with the changing times.

So, this week, I’ll get to pick up my new-old glasses. I had to use what had been my distance frames for the reading glasses and vice versa so I’d be able to see during the waiting period. But in the final analysis, I’ll once again be able to see well and my $250 stimulus gift will cover it all.

For your reference, there’s a wonderful Web site called Glassyeyes, which reviews and rates the online glasses sites. Next year, when I go for my eye check-up, I’ll be sure to get the new PD numbers with my new prescription (should I need one) and will give one of the online retailers a try (and won’t have to depend on another stimulus payment to keep the world in proper view). And considering that it was recently announced that there will be no Social Security cost-of-living adjustment in 2010 and 2011, but there will be an increase in the monthly Medicare deduction in both years, I’ll be getting smaller checks in an increasingly inflated economy, making it all the more essential that I find bargains for my glasses.

Please Mr. President, there’s gotta be a better way – and we need it now!

No comments: