HHS' inspector general's office released an advisory opinion last month that approved the waiver of insurance copayments for the National Eye Care Project.
The project is a public outreach program co-sponsored by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Knights Templar Eye Foundation to provide medical eye care for needy senior citizens.
The program set up a national referral network of more than 1,000 ophthalmologists who agree to accept insurance reimbursement as payment in full for comprehensive medical eye exams and follow-up care. If the patient is uninsured, the doctor agrees to treat without charge.
In 1991, HHS issued a special fraud alert that said that providers who routinely waive copayments might violate anti-kickback statutes. But the inspector general said the eye-care program does not violate federal law prohibiting inducements to Medicare beneficiaries, because the financial benefits to ophthalmologists are limited under the program.
Separately, two companies that manage eye-care professionals are positioning themselves for a surge in corrective laser surgery.
Vision Twenty-One last month agreed to sell its 76 optical stores to San Antonio-based Eye Care Centers of America for $42 million in cash. The Largo, Fla.-based company said it will incur a one-time charge connected with the sale, which is expected to close by early August.
Vision Twenty-One said Eye Care Centers, the nation's third-largest optical retailer, will market laser vision correction services provided by Vision Twenty-One surgeons. The company is affiliated with about 75 surgeons in 40 markets in 27 states.
Meanwhile, Omega Health Systems announced the sale of its managed-care subsidiary, Eye Health Network, to OptiCare Eye Health Centers, based in Waterbury, Conn. Earlier, Omega said it would develop and manage a national panel of ophthalmologists and optometrists to perform refractive surgery with a partner, but it declined to release details.
Omega plans to change its name to VisionAmerica.