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Bexar County is the most densely populated veteran community in Texas, with 153,000 veterans calling San Antonio home. Many of these veterans, unfortunately, are unable to get the proper health care they need. Although medical coverage is available through the Veterans Affairs program, it helps less than half of those who have served, with only 47 percent of veterans actually enrolled in VA coverage.
To bridge the gap between the medical services they deserve and what they receive, I Care San Antonio, a local eye care program dedicated to providing complete vision care for those who can’t afford it, is rolling out an expanded initiative called All Star Eye Care for Veterans and Their Families. It’s being launched with a celebratory event: The O’Dark Thirty Breakfast on the morning of Friday, Nov. 22, featuring keynote speaker Sal Giunta, Medal of Honor recipient.
I Care San Antonio was founded in 1992. Located next to the Haven for Hope campus, the I Care Vision Center serves low-income and homeless families in Bexar County and surrounding areas who do not have health insurance or whose health insurance deductible is so high that it acts as a barrier to care.
Since its inception, it has served over 45,000 patients, and it continues to set the example for what a charity eye clinic can be.
“The perception of a charity eye clinic is that we have doctors right out of school with old, used equipment, and it’s really the opposite,” said Libby Bentley, executive director and clinic administrator at I Care SA. “We have specialists in their field – top-notch San Antonio doctors with some of the highest-level equipment you’ll find in San Antonio or even Texas.”
I Care San Antonio has over 40 volunteer doctors that do everything from routine eye exams to complex sight-saving procedures like detached retina surgeries. In 2018, the services they provided amounted to a value of over $1 million in care.
“We couldn’t do this without our skilled volunteer doctors and the excellent equipment we have for them to use,” said Dr. Robert Rice, I Care SA’s co-founder and chief medical officer. “It works because they get excited and want to come here.”
The volunteer doctors love the opportunity to help patients with state-of-the-art equipment they may not even have at their own offices, like a wide-field retina camera. They also appreciate I Care SA’s willingness to bring in new equipment if a doctor asks for it, all in honor of serving patients better.
Recently, the program’s glaucoma specialist asked for a micropulse laser, and the I Care team had it in their facility within three months. This level of commitment to their doctors is one of the reasons the doctors continue to come back, and they enjoy it so much they even recruit other doctors to participate. As Bentley explained, “As staff, it is important to support the doctors because they are the heartbeat of our organization.”
To qualify for care, an applying patient’s income must be at or below 150 percent of federal guidelines on poverty, but with I Care SA’s expanded program All Star Eye Care for Veterans and Their Families, they are extending coverage to veterans and their immediate families at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
“A lot of families are living right on the edge of poverty; we are providing care that helps them from falling into the poverty cycle,” Bentley said. I Care SA is crisis-mitigating, rather than only serving those in poverty.
What’s especially unique about I Care San Antonio’s new veterans’ program is that it is available not only to the veteran, but also to the veteran’s immediate family members, including the veteran’s spouse, children, and parents. By offering these expanded services to both veterans and their families, I Care San Antonio is easing the financial burdens and stresses veterans and their families face when dealing with military separation, civilian transition, and caregiver demands.
“What we’re trying to do is to help the whole veteran,” Bentley said. “If we can’t help that veteran directly, we want to help their family.”
I Care SA knows its program launch will work in concert with what the VA already does for veterans.
“We’re not trying to take away from what the VA health system is doing a great job of, we’re trying to fill the gap for those who are so overwhelmed or who have a longer wait than usual. But also help the veteran family members,” Bentley id.
Veterans can experience long wait times with the VA, and coverage does not typically extend to family members. According to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office, even veterans using the VA Choice Program may still face months-long delays before seeing a doctor. These areas are where I Care SA’s expanded initiative will further benefit the large veteran population in San Antonio.
“We’re here to fill the gap of care that’s needed,” Rice said.
On Friday, Nov. 22, I Care SA will host the O’Dark Thirty Breakfast to roll out the All Star Eye Care program. Keynote speaker Giunta is a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, the author of Living With Honor, and the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. In 2017, he offered his Medal of Honor back to his brigade, acknowledging that it was not for him alone, but for all the men and women who served alongside him.
The event will take place at the Tripoint Event Center at 3233 N. St Mary’s St. from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. For more information on the event and I Care San Antonio, click here.