Camden eye clinic running short of funds, may close

An eye clinic that has enabled generations of kids and adults to see more clearly may soon go dark.

The South Jersey Eye Center, founded in Camden in 1961 to provide affordable vision care and eyewear to city residents, is running short of operating funds.

"We should have closed" already, manager Denise Baker says, adding, "The other day I burst into tears."

Jobs have been eliminated, hours cut, the annual budget slashed by more than half, and the third floor at the main office on Chambers Street shuttered to save on utilities.

The center serves 2,000 patients, about 68 percent of whom live in Camden. Half are children, only a tiny fraction have conventional health insurance, and many, like Rosa Smith, rely on public transportation.

"I just hope they stay in business," says Smith, 84, a retired church housekeeper from Parkside who's been treated for what she describes as "a little glaucoma and a little cataracts."

The center, Smith adds, "is the only eye doctor I've ever been to."

Medical director and optometrist Shelby Baker says the nonprofit clinic is being squeezed by rising costs, stagnant Medicaid reimbursement rates, and the mistaken impression among potential funders that all poor people are now covered by the Affordable Care Act.

"About 95 percent of our patients are uninsured or underinsured," he says, noting that eye exams and related services often aren't covered for adults through the Affordable Care Act.

Worsening the center's cash crunch: A $350,000 annual state funding cut imposed as the economy cratered in 2008 was never restored.

And while the Lions Clubs of New Jersey and the Lions Club International Foundation are stalwart supporters, other traditional funders of vision-related services have begun underwriting research rather than treatment.

"We let the staff go at noontime on Wednesday [Nov. 16] because we didn't have a doctor," Denise Baker says.

"When we don't have a doctor," Shelby Baker adds, "it's because we can't pay a doctor."

I meet the Bakers, who are married, and board member MaryAnn Ragone DeLambily - her father, Lawrence Ragone, founded the center and still serves on the board - at the Chambers Street headquarters.

"We don't want closing our doors to be an option," DeLambily says. "But what we need is operating money, and that's tough to get."

She and other center officials hope to keep the lights on for a few months while they pursue a partnership or a merger - which would be easier to accomplish while South Jersey Eye remains a going concern.

"This has never been a 'Medicaid Mill,' " says board member and optometrist Charles Fitzpatrick. "The doctors and the staff have taken time to treat our patients as if they were private-pay patients.

"We're hoping that public or private benefactors will find it's worthwhile to keep this going," Fitzpatrick adds.

In addition to the main clinic, the center also operates a satellite office (rent-free) at Camden County's Lakeland complex in Gloucester Township, and a clinic-on-wheels that formerly ran twice monthly but has been cut to once every other month.

"I founded the center because I saw there was a great need," says Ragone, 88, an optometrist who grew up in South Camden and entered private practice there in 1956.

He set up what was then called the Camden Eye Center five years later, "with $150, some antique equipment," and rent-free digs in the old Camden Convention Center on Haddon Avenue.

The center has recorded about 450,000 patient visits since 1980, "which is very gratifying," Ragone says.

But the possibility of closure "is very difficult for me emotionally," he adds.

"Ten years ago, if you asked me whether we should merge or partner with another [provider], I would have said no. Now, I say, absolutely! Because we need to keep serving the people who need us. We have to keep our doors open."

I agree; I've written about the center over the years, and have been impressed by the mission, and by the people who carry it out.

"We're waiting for an angel," says DeLambily.

Adds Shelby Baker, "Maybe two or three."

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