NSU provides vision services to Cherokees through partnership

By: Sarah Terry-Cobo The Journal Record,  July 25, 2017, on

TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee citizens can see clearer, thanks to a partnership with Northeastern State University.

The College of Optometry is the tribe’s sole vision services provider. The partnership allows students and resident doctors an opportunity to learn and to train, and Cherokee citizens get a vital health service that can otherwise be difficult to obtain.

The main clinic in Tahlequah serves people who live within about a 40-mile radius, said Dr. Charles Grim, deputy executive director of the Cherokee Nation Health Services. So the tribe expanded its health services to include vision clinics in each of its territory’s 14 counties. That also allows students more opportunities to practice in rural settings.

NSU’s is the only optometry college in Oklahoma, and the only optometry college in a rural area nationwide.

Native Americans are at a higher risk for diabetes than the general population, and when left untreated, diabetes can lead to blindness, known as diabetic retinopathy.

More than 50,000 Cherokee citizens are NSU-treated patients at the optometry clinics. About 10,000 citizens have been diagnosed with diabetes. Grim said the tribe’s goal is to ensure all those who have diabetes get annual eye, foot and dental checkups.

“We make sure we keep a very close eye on those diabetic patients,” he said.

While the consequences of untreated diabetes are serious, far more Cherokee citizens need eyeglasses than have diabetes, Grim said.

There are about 320,000 tribal citizens, with about 126,000 living in the tribe’s boundaries in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is the largest federally recognized tribe in the U.S.

NSU Optometry College Dean Dr. Doug Penisten said the contract with the Cherokees requires that citizens get the highest-quality eyeglasses and contacts at the lowest possible price. Since the college isn’t driven by profit, they can operate on thin margins, he said. Operating costs are lower because students don’t earn the salaries optometrists do.

“This would not exist with any other relationship if the partners didn’t have a mutually beneficial relationship,” Penisten said.

The partnership began in the early 1980s. There’s a huge demand for optometry services, but not all Indian Health Service clinics nor all tribes can provide that, Grim said. That led the Cherokee Nation to create a partnership with NSU. The tribe hires clerical employees and technicians at its clinics, in addition to the contract it has with NSU students and resident eye doctors.

The Cherokees provided a hospital they owned, which was formerly an IHS hospital built in the 1930s. Penisten said administrators want to build a new building, because the college’s existing building is so old.

“We can’t maintain the status quo,” Penisten said. “We need to derive revenue to help us move forward and improve our facilities.”

NSU is nine years into a $25 million capital campaign, seeking donations from alumni and private foundations. But it’s a tough time to raise money, Penisten said. As of April, they raised more than $18 million. The Optometry College is trying to raise $9 million for a new building complex.

The university also faces declining state appropriations. The last three years it received $11.06 million less from the state, a cut of nearly 32 percent.

The Cherokee Nation is building a new hospital in Tahlequah, which will provide more space for the optometry clinic and for NSU’s students to train. Since the tribe’s capital is Tahlequah, that allows Chief Bill John Baker to meet regularly with NSU’s president, Grim said.

“The proximity creates a strong partnership,” Grim said.



Open letter from Dr. Selina McGee, OD, of Midwest City
June 29, 2017

Media Contact: Eli Nichols

Joel Robison, CEO


Oklahoma Doctor Fights Retail Attacks on Patients' Vision Health

By Dr. Selina McGee

 I have worked as an optometric physician in Oklahoma for 15 years. I fit patients with contacts and prescription eye glasses, I treat debilitating conditions like glaucoma; I perform surgeries; and I have diagnosed life threatening conditions like brain tumors. 

Today, my profession and the health of my patients are being attacked by Walmart and other out-of-state retailers.

 Under the guise of “market competition,” Walmart is working to change Oklahoma’s constitution to eliminate the legal barriers between medicine and retail sales. In other words, they want optometric physicians like me to work in a Walmart store.

 Our state Constitution currently prohibits such a set-up, a choice that Oklahoma lawmakers wisely made to treat medical care as something other than a normal mass market retail product.

 There are two important reasons for that degree of separation. The first is quality.

 I work in a private practice and my only business is optometry.  I am not assigned a budget by a Walmart manager or asked to cut corners. I know my patients by name not just a number. I have every incentive to offer the highest quality of care.

Conversely, Walmart does not specialize in providing high quality goods and services. They are known for bulk sales and cheap products. That is fine if you are buying a garden hose; it is not fine if you are getting laser eye surgery. Why would we concede the health of our eyes, arguably the most important of our senses, to a conglomerate who knows nothing about healthcare?

 Other than guaranteeing quality of care, another reason for separating medicine from big box store environments is trust.

 If a doctor tells a patient they need a procedure or a new prescription, the patient needs to trust he or she is receiving advice based on sound medicine not a salesperson meeting quarterly quota.

Big box stores rely on quickly selling as much (cheap) stuff as possible to as many people as possible. In states where Walmart can house optometry clinics, there are numerous examples of optometrists who are pressured to change how they practice medicine to increase sales and sell more products. That may be good for business; it is bad medicine.  “Quality care” and “trust” are the bedrock principles that all doctors operate on and all patients demand. Sadly, Walmart wants to replace those principles with just one: “profit.”





April 7, 2017

Media Contact: Eli Nichols

Joel Robison, CEO


Oklahoma Optometric Physicians Challenge Walmart Petition 

The Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians (OAOP) - an organization representing more than 700 Oklahoma eye doctors - today filed a legal challenge to Walmart's initiative petition to allow big box stores to profit from the practice of optometry. The OAOP is challenging Walmart's petition on the basis of "logrolling," or combining different topics into one, a violation of the state's "single subject rule" for legislation and constitutional amendments.

Walmart's petition erroneously lumps "optometric physicians" and "opticians" into the same category, allowing big box stores to house both, even though they are very different professions.

 "Optometric physicians are doctors who perform surgeries, diagnose and manage chronic eye diseases, and are tasked with detecting potentially life threatening conditions," said Glenn Coffee, whose Oklahoma City-based law firm has been retained by the OAOP. "The state has decided that it's better to keep medical professionals like optometrists out of big retail stores like Walmart.

 "Opticians, on the other hand, are not licensed medical professionals," said Coffee. "They are technical practitioners who dispense and fit corrective lenses. Unfortunately, Walmart's petition wrongly and unconstitutionally lumps opticians and optometric physicians together, which is why it should be thrown out."

 Emphasis on Health vs. Walmart Profits

OAOP President Dr. Michelle Welch, an Idabel-based optometric physician, says that Walmart's petition will ultimately hurt patients. She says Oklahoma's current laws are designed to promote good vision health and high quality care, and Walmart is seeking to lower the bar.

"Oklahoma's high standards for care are attracting the best optometric physicians from across the country," said Welch. "We have one of the finest optometry schools in the nation at Northeastern State University. Unlike other health care sectors, we don't have access-to-care problems. Optometrists come to Oklahoma and stay here, and they are practicing in the vast majority of our 77 counties.

 "If we lower the bar and make our eye doctors into Walmart employees, I am afraid Oklahoma will no longer be a destination-state for vision care professionals. What we will see is less of a commitment to excellence, fewer people interested in practicing optometry, and worse outcomes for patients." 

Welch said that the debate really came down to what was more important: health or big business.

 "Our current laws were designed to promote good health. It would be a tragedy if we rewrote them to promote stronger sales for Walmart instead," said Welch.  

 The OAOP represents over 700 Optometric Physicians in Oklahoma. OAOP's mission is to lead optometric physicians through education and opportunities to improve vision, eye care, and health care.