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Governor signs bipartisan bill to help charities provide free glasses, hearing aids

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a measure to shield, against civil lawsuits, charitable organizations working to provide much-needed eyewear and hearing aids to poor, homeless and uninsured people.

House Bill 2261 was prime-sponsored in the House by Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview. The bill’s language, as amended in the Senate, is similar to that of Senate Bill 6216, which was sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and passed unanimously in the Senate.

Padden and Takko worked together with civic organizations to shepherd the bipartisan measure through the legislative process, and both applauded the governor’s signing of the bill.

“This is great news for every charity that wants to help provide aid to those who are vision- or hearing-impaired,” said Takko. “Eighty-seven years ago, Helen Keller delivered a stirring, inspiring keynote address at the Lions International convention, where she challenged the Lions ‘to become Knights of the Blind in the crusade against darkness.’ Today we have made that commission easier to accomplish in this state, thanks to this bill.”

Padden agrees.

“I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for their unanimous support of this measure and the governor for signing it into law,” said Padden.

“Organizations such as the Union Gospel Mission and Lions Club International are working to improve the vision of thousands of poor and uninsured people in eastern Washington by distributing donated eyeglasses to those who otherwise would go without. By protecting these organizations against civil lawsuits, legislators in the House and Senate have freed those organizations to continue their support for the state’s most needy citizens,” Padden explained.

Takko noted that upward of 200,000 pairs of used, good-quality eyeglasses are distributed every year around the nation to people who are vision-impaired.

Washington’s "Good Samaritan Act" says people who render care at an emergency (provided they expect no compensation for their good deeds) have immunity from liability in any lawsuits that might be considered against them. That law has been strengthened over the years to also assure immunity for physicians and other health-care providers volunteering health-care services with nonprofit organizations or with for-profit groups that regularly provide services to uninsured people. The law, however, did not provide immunity for the organization itself.

HB 2261 responds to this need, as well as to a Washington Board of Optometry decision last year that interpreted federal law as preventing the redistribution of used glasses without a prescription.

The bill also includes a provision that expands the immunity to hearing instruments only if the hearing instruments are provided by an osteopathic physician or a hearing health-care professional who has personally examined the recipient.

Generally, Medicare does not cover eyeglasses, contact lenses, routine hearing exams or hearing aids of any type, making charities such as the Lions and Union Gospel Mission vital to serving the needs of less-fortunate Washingtonians.

The bill goes into effect on June 7.

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