New Study: Eye Problems Cost $139 Billion - 5th Among 7 Most Costly Chronic Diseases in Direct Medical Costs

A new study conducted by specialists at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, for nonprofit Prevent Blindness America, has found that the total economic burden of eye disorders and vision loss in the U.S. in 2013 will amount to $139 Billion, including both direct and indirect costs.

“Our findings show that eye disorders and vision loss are among the costliest conditions to the U.S. economy, and based on ever-increasing healthcare costs and an aging population, this cost is set to continue to grow,” the study authors wrote.

“Understanding the costs of disease provides vital information for identifying areas of need for future research and healthcare investment,” they said. “This is particularly important for the areas of eye disease and vision loss, as the indirect costs of low vision greatly increase the total burden of these conditions beyond the healthcare sector,” according to the study authors.

Direct medical costs, alone, for eye disorders will amount to $66.8 Billion this year, the study found. Other major findings of the new study are summarized in the video above, prepared by Prevent Blindness America. They include:

  • $139 Billion – The economic burden of eye disorders and vision loss in the United States this year.
  • $72.2 Billion – The cost of vision problems, outside direct health care expenses, including lost productivity, long-term care, and other costs.
  • $47.4 Billion – The cost to the government and taxpayers, including direct medical costs and long-term care.
  • $22.1 Billion – The cost to private health insurers.
  • $6,680 per person per year – The cost of treatment for blindness and low vision.”

Direct Medical Costs of Major Chronic Conditions in U.S. 2013 (source - Prevent Blindness America)According to data presented in the new study (illustrated by the chart at left), the direct medical costs of eye disorders ($66.8 Billion) places them as the fifth most costly among seven other major chronic diseases in the U.S. — including heart disease, cancers, emotional diseases, pulmonary conditions, hypertension, diabetes, and stroke.

“Although subject to significant methodological differences, a recent analysis of the cost of seven major chronic diseases in the United States, which did not include vision, only reported four conditions with direct costs higher than our findings of $66.8 billion [direct medical costs for eye disorders],” the study authors wrote.

The sources given by the study authors for the numbers illustrated in their above chart include: a study published in 2012 by Pascolini, D. and S. Mariotti, entitled, Global estimates of visual impairment: 2010. Br J Ophthalmol, 2012. 96(5): p. 614-8, and a study published in 2013 by DeVol, R., et al., entitled, An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease. 2007 4/23/2013]; Available from: http://www.chronicdiseaseimpact.com/ebcd.taf.

The new study updates a 2007 report prepared for Prevent Blindness America, which estimated the annual economic burden of eye problems at $51.4 Billion. This means that the estimated total economic burden of eye disorders has increased more than $80 Billion in five years. This increase was due in part to use of a more comprehensive methodology in estimating indirect economic burdens this year.

The new study, Cost of Vision Problems: The Economic Burden of Vision Loss and Eye Disorders in the United States, was conducted by John Wittenborn and David Rein of NORC at the University of Chicago for the nonprofit organization, Prevent Blindness America, which has published the study on its website.

“I think a lot of chronic conditions get a little more attention,” John Wittenborn, study author and research scientist at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), told USA Today. “What people don’t realize is that some of those boring conditions (like eye disorders) really account for the bulk of medical costs in our country.”

Prevalence of Eye Disorders

The authors present data showing that 8.57% of people age 65 or older suffer from some type of visual impairment — including 5.0% who suffer from mild impairment, 1.16% who suffer from moderate impairment, and 2.41% who are blind. These data are from the NHANES national health study, published by the National Eye Institute.

Among the eye disorders considered by the authors and included in their study data (for people of all ages) were: visual disturbances, cataracts, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and optic nerve problems, retina disorders (with and without diabetes), disorders of the globe, injuries and burns, blindness and low vision, and others.

Why Focus on the Cost of Eye Disorders?

“The impact of chronic health problems is hard to put into words. So we put it into Numbers,” says Prevent Blindness America.

“Vision loss and blindness come at a tremendous cost. That’s why Prevent Blindness America supports programs, policies and investments that protect vision and eye health,” the organization’s video states.

“The longer you live with a vision problem, the more expensive it gets,” study author John Wittenborn told USA Today. “Eye disorders are ranked fifth for highest cost, yet we’re not getting that attention. No one dies from eye disorders, but they greatly impact quality of life.”

While the federal government does cover $47.4 Billion of the total financial burden from eye disorders, and private insurers another $22.1 Billion, the researchers found that patients and their families are actually paying the largest portion of the costs themselves — spending approximately $71.6 Billion (an average of $238 per-person per-year) on eye and vision related problems.

Jeff Todd, chief operating officer of Prevent Blindness America, told USA Today that “the best way to deflect further increases in the cost is preventive eye care and more research.”

“However, he says funding directly connected to prevention is the ‘biggest challenge,’ especially after changes made to the national budget in March,” USA Today reports. Their report states, “[T]he National Eye Institute received a $36 million cut in its $703 million budget, resulting in a possible loss of about 90 grants, ‘any one of which could hold the promise for saving or restoring vision,’ according to the National Alliance for Eye and Vision website.”

“What’s lacking is early detection or early diagnoses. Vision problems are detected too late,” study author Wittenborn said.

“Right now we can’t restore vision; we can only retain vision that has not been lost, and (preventive care) can really save and prevent people from losing a significant amount of vision and money,” Mr. Wittenborn said.

On the bright side, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (President Obama’s signature Health Care Law), starting in 2014 will guarantee pediatric vision care coverage in all private insurance policies. “Many insurance companies today don’t pay for [this],” study author Wittenborn told USA Today. “Filling in the gap in this underserved population will go a long way in preventing future vision loss,” he said.

“From our perspective, we are really going to emphasize the importance of early prevention,” Jeff Todd, Prevent Blindness America’s COO, said. Otherwise “the cost will continue to rise at a pretty significant rate,” he said.

Early Diagnosis and Preventive Measures Can Help Reduce Eye Disorders

According to advice provided by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, in a pamphlet called, “Simple Tips for Healthy Eyes,” here are some steps you can take to help reduce your risk of suffering debilitating and costly eye disorders:

  • Have a comprehensive dilated eye exam. “[M]any common eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic eye disease, and age-related macular degeneration often have no warning signs. A dilated eye exam is the only way to detect these diseases in their early stages,” the NEI states.
  • Know your family’s eye health history. “It’s important to know if anyone has been diagnosed with a disease or condition since many are hereditary,” the NEI counsels.
  • Eat right to protect your sight. “Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or collard greens, is important for keeping your eyes healthy, too. Research has also shown there are eye health benefits from eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut,” the NEI states.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. “Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing diabetes and other systemic conditions, which can lead to vision loss, such as diabetic eye disease or glaucoma. If you are having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, talk to your doctor,” the NEI advises.
  • Wear protective eyewear.
  • Quit smoking or never start.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. “When purchasing sunglasses, look for ones that block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation,” the NEI advises.
  • Give your eyes a rest. “If you spend a lot of time at the computer or focusing on any one thing, you sometimes forget to blink and your eyes can get fatigued. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away about 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds. This can help reduce eyestrain,” counsels the NEI.
  • Clean your hands and your contact lenses— properly.
  • Practice workplace eye safety.

For further information, see the National Eye Institute’s Healthy Vision website.

More Information

See related HelpingYouCare® reports on:

May is Healthy Vision Month (providing links to multiple resources on healthy vision from the National Eye Institute)

Johns Hopkins Issues 2012 Vision White Paper, Focusing on How to Halt or Reverse Vision Loss

Eye Health Month Focuses on Eye Health & Safety

New Study: Eating Fish & Omega-3 May Reduce Risk of Age-Related Macular Degeneration in Women

Resources on Cataracts Presented for Cataract Awareness Month – June 1-30

For more information on eyesight problems, and their causes, symptoms, prevention, treatment, and caregiving, See also the HelpingYouCare® resource pages on Eyesight Problems, including:

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