As I write this column in mid-summer, Congress is embroiled in the national debate over how to fix the broken U.S. healthcare system. Congressional committees are shaping several bipartisan bills with an eye toward creating a single comprehensive bill that could include some type of public option.

Critics of a federally funded public option argue that it will be hugely expensive to implement and administer. Yet maintaining the status quo could be even more expensive, especially when it comes to vision care.

A report published last year in the Archives of Ophthalmology found that Americans without health insurance visit eyecare professionals at significantly lower rates than those who are insured. Yet millions of Americans are currently without vision care insurance. Their ranks are rapidly swelling due to growing unemployment. As the number of people increases who cannot get access to preventative vision care or treatment for their vision problems, it will further strain our battered economy.

Economic losses due to vision-related problems are already high. A 2007 report by Prevent Blindness America (PBA) estimates the costs associated with adult vision problems in the U.S. at $51.4 billion. According to Kevin Frick, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose team participated in the PBA study, the number of people in the U.S. with impaired vision could increase by at least 60 percent over the next three decades. How many of those people will have no vision care insurance?

Offering a public option, including vision care, is not a panecea for all that ails our healthcare system. Even its proponents admit that a federally funded program of this magnitude will be fraught with difficulties. But to make no change is a risk we can’t afford.

—Andrew Karp