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Before you turn 40, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends you get at least one comprehensive eye examination done by a qualified physician. But if you have any comorbidity that predisposes you to eye problems such as diabetes and hypertension, you should receive a full eye exam even earlier.
A consistent family history of eyeglass and contact lens wearing is a signal that you should have regular eye exams before you turn 50.
But the unfortunate fact is, most eyesight issues go undiagnosed because general medical insurance rarely covers eye care.
If you lack vision insurance to cover the cost of a complete eye test or you can’t afford to pay out of your pocket, multiple agencies, as well as organizations, now make vision care much more accessible by offering free or low-cost eye scan options.
Eye exams typically cost between $50 and $250, with the price differences determined by where you live, who your doctor is and the extensiveness of the testing.
But various community organizations and public health programs offer vision help to people in low-income brackets, children and senior citizens. Enough resources exist that cost should not be a deterrent to getting your eyes checked regularly.
Affordable and Free Eye Exam Options
Vision insurance plans typically cover at least part of the cost of an annual eye exam. Even Medicare covers some forms of eye exams. While Medicare plans do not regularly cover routine eye exams, they will offer coverage for eye exams if you suffer from diabetes or are at risk for glaucoma or macular degeneration.
The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through Medicaid offers services, including eye exams to children of low-income families. To determine if you are eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP, contact your local state office.
If you do not have insurance, there are still options for affordable and free eye exams. The National Eye Institute (NEI) provides a list of resources that offer free eye exams. Another resource is New Eyes, which provides vouchers for free eyeglasses to those in need as well as a state-by-state listing of local agencies offering low-cost or free eye exams.
There are additional sources for free or affordable eye exams:
- Eye Care America is operated by AAO. They provide medical eye exams for little or no out-of-pocket costs.
- InfantSEE provides free eye exams for babies between the ages of 6 and 12 months, as a public health service operated by Optometry Cares, the American Optometric Association (AOA).
- Sight for Students is a vision service plan (VSP) that offers gift certificates for free eye exams and eye care services, including eyeglasses, to children in low-income and uninsured families.
- Eyes of Hope provides eye care for eligible underserved populations and those who have been victims of disasters. They offer gift certificates for care through local VSP network providers and community partners.
- Lions Club International offers financial assistance to eligible individuals for eye exams and eye care services.
- One Sight is operated under LensCrafters. Often through charitable vision clinics, eligible individuals are able to obtain financial assistance for eye care, including eye exams, vision care, and eyeglasses.
The national program Prevent Blindness America can connect individuals with free resources or low-cost eye exams as well.
Community agencies and local public health offices may have more information on programs that can offer free eye exams in your immediate area. There are many resources offering affordable and even free eye exams that are open to people without financial means or health insurance coverage as well as for children in low-income families.
Free Eye Exams for Children
Parents have few obstacles finding eyecare for their kids. There are too many public-health and charitable options to get kids tested, and doctors can detect vision abnormalities in babies and children through regular screening.
Infants between 6-12 months in age can benefit from InfantSEE’s free vision screening, while children from low-income households that do not have medical or vision insurance can get help through Sight for Students.
You may also have local programs in place to get your children’s eyes tested. Contact the health department in your area. Elementary school nurses are also a good resource for information about healthcare benefits, including free eye exams for kids.
Free Eye Exams vs. Paid Exams
An eye exam can differ in cost based on many factors, including whether the exam is done by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, where you live, where the exam is conducted (retail establishment, private clinic, medical clinic, or optical chain), and the type of tests that are performed.
Free eye exams may be performed more often by optometrists and may not be as comprehensive as an exam done by an ophthalmologist using the latest technology and testing procedures. It can cost more for some procedures, such as pupil dilation or retinal photos. Tests related to contact lens fitting and prescriptions may require additional procedures; therefore, they often cost extra.
Check what is included in your eye exam. At the very least, a comprehensive eye exam should include the following:
- Review of your personal and family eye health and medical history
- Use of an eye chart to evaluate distance vision
- Testing to evaluate close vision
- Diagnostic testing to evaluate for myopia, hyperopia, presbyopia, and astigmatism
- Testing to check that the eyes work properly together
- Examination of the optic nerve and an eye pressure test to check for glaucoma
- Interior and front of the eye examination to check for cataracts, macular degeneration, and other possible issues
- A pupil response test by shining a bright light and testing for reactivity
Your eye doctor may also conduct supplementary specialized imaging tests to check for eye diseases and other issues.
Eye exams that include prescription eye wear can also mean different types of testing. If you are being fitted for contacts, for example, additional procedures are necessary to measure the eyes to get a customized fit.
A free eye exam can be a great diagnostic tool to check for possible medical concerns and promote eye health. An eye exam that is provided through a private eye clinic or medical office and performed by an ophthalmologist will generally cost a little more, but it will offer a higher level of examination and care.
Free Online Exams and Telehealth Appointments
Until recently, all eye examinations were conducted during in-person visits to an optometrist or ophthalmologist. But more and more vision-care practices offer online exams as the reach of telehealth grows, particular as the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic warranted new protocols at all healthcare facilities.
Online eye exams, though still limited, offer greater convenience and a faster way of identifying vision abnormalities such as astigmatism and color blindness.
ZEISS.com, FinestGlass.com and DiscountContactLenses.com are some of the sites that offer free online exams.
If the idea of online eye exams appeals to you, call your doctor’s office to learn what might be available for you. Secondary resources for information are your medical insurance provider and your local health department.
Eye Exam and Vision Testing Basics. (December 2018). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Your Medicare Coverage. Medicare.gov.
Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Medicaid.gov.
Financial Aid for Eye Care. (June 2016). National Eye Institute.
New Eyes Glasses for Those in Need. New Eyes for the Needy.
Eye Care America. (2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
InfantSEE. (2018). American Optometric Association.
Sight for Students. National Associate of School Nurses.
Gift Certificates. (2019). Vision Service Plan.
Find a Club. (2019). Lions Club International.
Everyone Deserves to See a Brighter Future. (2019). LensCrafters.
Prevent Blindness. (2019). Prevent Blindness.
Eye Exam and Vision Testing Basics. (January 14, 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology. Date fetched: August 6, 2021.
Vision Screening Guidelines by Age. (August 2021). National Center for Children’s Eye Vision and Health. Date fetched: August 6, 2021.
Getting Help Paying for Eyecare. (May 19, 2021). National Eye Institute. Date fetched: August 11, 2021.