Fardowsa Adbi, 9, right, tries on the frames for her first pair of eyeglasses at the new eyeglasses dispensary at B Street Health Center in Lewiston as her 6-year-old brother, Hussein Abdi, looks closely at himself in a mirror.

LEWISTON — Mckayla Hilliard leaned over the display boxes filled with glasses. Wire frames, plastic frames, geek chic, sophisticated, black, white, multicolored. Dozens of them, new and shiny and waiting.

She reached out to touch a brown pair with square lenses, then pulled back.

“Wait,” she said to Lynn Poulin, who runs the dispensary, “these are all covered by MaineCare?”

Hilliard, 17, had gotten her first eyeglass prescription last Friday, one with which she could see street signs and read the chalkboard at school. But while her eye doctor accepted MaineCare for the exam, the office would not actually order the glasses.

Not a lot of doctors do for MaineCare.

A new dispensary at the B Street Health Center in Lewiston is filling that void for children statewide.

“Holy cow,” Hilliard said when assured she could order any pair she wanted. She dipped her head and whispered to her cousin, “There’s so many glasses.”

MaineCare pays for young people, up to age 21, to get an eye exam and receive two pairs of glasses a year. The state-federal health insurance program for low-income or disabled Mainers pays for the exam, pays to have the glasses fitted and ordered and pays for the glasses, which are made in a lab out of state. 

But while doctors might accept MaineCare for the exam, many don’t accept it for the fitting and ordering.

Norma Larocque, health coordinator for the Promise Early Education Center in Lewiston — formerly Androscoggin Head Start and Child Care — began seeing the problem five or six years ago. Her students could get an exam and prescription without much trouble, but they couldn’t get glasses.

“If they can’t see … they’re not going to be learning a whole lot,” she said.

Some families traveled to Pittsfield or Augusta for the service. Others just couldn’t. 

“Parents are pretty creative on their own, but that’s one more hardship,” Larocque said. “There were many children — many, many children — who went without.”

Doug Henry, an optometrist and co-owner of Optometric Associates in Lewiston, was well aware of the problem. He’d been hearing from his fellow eye doctors that the MaineCare reimbursement for fitting and ordering was too low — $14.40 when other states were twice that. He and other doctors asked the state to up the reimbursement a few years ago, but to no avail. 

One by one, eye doctors stopped fitting and ordering glasses for MaineCare recipients who weren’t their patients. Some stopped handling glasses for any children and teens with MaineCare, whether they were their patients or not. 

“Who lost out were the kids,” said Henry, a member of Promise’s health advisory board. 

Larocque and Henry began talking about ways to fix the problem. He opened up his own practice to all MaineCare children who needed to be fitted for glasses, but he was inundated and couldn’t handle the demand for long. Earlier this year, he limited the service to his MaineCare patients.

He and Larocque considered setting up a traveling vision van, or maybe a storefront dispensary in downtown Lewiston. But overhead costs were too much. 

That is until the B Street Health Center agreed to get involved. It would find space. 

“Literally, we were going to put it in the hallway at one point,” said Joan Churchill, CEO of Community Clinical Services, the nonprofit group that runs the health center.

A $6,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation paid for the equipment the dispensary would need. Lynn Poulin, executive coordinator, volunteered to run the place, fit the children and order glasses. Debbie Bourgoin, optician at Henry’s Optometric Associates, used her days off to train Poulin.

Last month, the dispensary opened, offering to fit and order glasses by appointment every Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m. Organizers believe it’s the first of its kind in Maine.

In just over a month, the dispensary has served nearly 40 children and teens. Some have traveled from as far away as Portland, Augusta and the Norway area. 

“It’s amazing,” Poulin said.

Hilliard, who lives in Litchfield, arrived at the dispensary shortly after it opened Wednesday. Another eye doctor had wanted to charge her $60 to fit and order the glasses — a service that should have been free to patients with MaineCare.

That didn’t surprise Poulin; she’d heard it before. Some patients said doctors wanted to charge over $100.

“There was one woman who went for her (infant daughter’s) appointment in Portland and she picked out the glasses and everything and then they told her  there was going to be a cost. So she’s like, ‘Great. I can’t get them,'” Poulin said. “When she came here, she was all excited because we had the same frames she had picked out.” 

Hilliard spent about 15 minutes trying on glasses, modeling different styles for her cousin and older sister. She eventually chose one of the first she’d touched, brown with square lenses.    

“I’m pretty excited,” she said.

A few minutes later, 9-year-old Fardowsa Abdi walked in with her mother and 6-year-old brother, Hussein. She picked out the ones she wanted within seconds — black frames with red arms.

“My friend has the same kind,” she said shyly.

Poulin orders the glasses after getting each child’s prescription and measuring their pupillary distance. Glasses arrive in about a week. Poulin fits them and makes sure the lenses are correct to the prescription.

Organizers expect the dispensary will get busier toward the end of summer, as more children get their annual eye exams for the new school year. Ultimately, they’d like to open it more often, at least one full day a week.   

“Kids need glasses,” Henry said.

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