What cost to observe life with a clear eye?

Choices: Laser surgery is likely to be cheaper than eyeglasses over the long run, and there are even more ways to correct your vision.

Your Money

March 21, 2004|By Imran Vittachi | Imran Vittachi,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

If you are one of the millions of Americans with vision problems, rest assured there is no shortage of treatments to clear up your eyesight.

While none of these comes cheap, paying for eye exams and buying new glasses or contacts over a lifetime still will cost more than the one-time expense of laser surgery. Of course, cost isn't the only factor.

Here's the monetary rundown on vision-correction options:

Laser surgery. It's a frightening thought for many people to entrust their eyes to a surgeon's knife and laser beam, permanently changing the shape of their corneas. Yet it is probably the cheapest and most practical way over the long run for fixing vision problems.

Ophthalmologists warn that although complications are few (1 percent or less of these procedures can cause eye problems), there is some risk. Eye-care professionals also advise prospective patients to shed expectations that they are buying 20/20 vision.

The most popular form of the outpatient surgery is dubbed Lasik, short for laser-assisted in-situ keratomileusis, which takes only a few minutes. It is used to correct nearsightedness, farsightedness and other vision disorders.

Dr. Monica L. Monica, an ophthalmologist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says laser-assisted surgery typically starts at about $1,000 per eye. Costs vary, depending on the surgeon's experience and what is included in the package. In most cases, the surgery is not covered by insurance.

Customized laser surgery. A relatively new pre-laser procedure, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year, "customizes" refractive laser surgery to a patient's individual eyesight characteristics, eye doctors say. The procedure, known as "wavefront-guided" laser surgery, is promoted as adding up to 25 times more accuracy to standard refractive laser surgery. Eye surgeons say the new technology allows them to pinpoint optical disorders such as halo effects and night glare ahead of laser surgery.

"We like to look at it as taking a fingerprint of your eye," says Bertram Kraft, a Chicago eye doctor. Kraft charges $4,100 for Lasik-only on both eyes and $4,900 for a bundled wavefront-Lasik package.

Corneal refractive therapy. A less invasive procedure also is available, but it is expensive. CRT requires the patient to sleep with a pair of specially fitted contact lenses that flatten the cornea and correct vision overnight. But this treatment works only if the patient wears the lenses every night.

Dr. Arthur Epstein, who heads the contact lens service at New York University School of Medicine, says that consumers can expect to pay from $1,200 to $2,500 to have both eyes fitted and checked regularly.

Standard contact lenses and disposable contacts. Contact lenses, as is the case with eyeglasses, aren't a cure for vision imperfections. They adjust a person's vision to the correct prescription only when they are being worn. Because standard soft contact lenses cost an average of $80 to $100 per eye, and need constant maintenance with cleaning solutions, eye professionals recommend that wearers take great care to keep their lenses clean, or risk eye infections.

Consumers who don't want to bother with the daily upkeep of conventional contacts might want to consider disposable lenses instead. Assuming that your eyes are identical in prescription, a 90-day supply of daily disposable contacts will cost an average of $45; a 12-week supply of six pairs of lenses that last two weeks costs an average of $25, according to estimates by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Eyeglasses. If you don't mind settling on good old-fashioned eyeglasses, then be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars to get an eye prescription, to have your eyes examined regularly and to replace your eyewear every two to four years. Consumers can save money by avoiding extra costs for nonessential items such as having their lenses scratch-proofed.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, eyeglass lenses and frames can cost from $150 to $660.

Imran Vittachi is a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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