glasses_web.jpgCOCONUT CREEK — After just one visit, Uchania James was hooked.

The business student at Everest University is a loyal client at Broward College's non-profit Vision Care Clinic, at the college's north campus in Coconut Creek.

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Walk through the clinic's doors, and it looks like any other eye-care facility, equipped with eyeglass frames and an optical fabrication lab.

The only differences: Lower prices and eye care provided by optometry students. James, 34, discovered the clinic through word-of-mouth in 2007.

"And ever since then, I've been coming back!" she said.

James doesn't mind being a part of the students' learning experience in exchange for the financial relief it provides.

"Especially for this time in the economy, we all need to maintain what we have, and this place has the affordability to do that," James said.

For people without insurance, local eye doctors' offices, such as Broward Eyecare Associates, charges prices starting at $105 for an exam. The cost rises to $280 for contact wearers.

Vision Works prices range from $64 to $159, while Sears Optical ranges from $50 to $110 and up, depending on the choice of glasses or contacts and the condition of the patient's eyes.

At Vision Care, however, an eye exam is only $15 for eyeglass wearers, and $30 for those wearing contacts.

"Not enough people know about it," she said.

Despite the clinic's growing popularity, many people aren't aware of it, including some of Broward College's 60,000 students.

According to Lloyd Holness, the associate dean of Broward College's Vision Care program, the clinic's low profile is partly due to its conscious decision not to advertise.

"There is no advertising campaign or outreach; students are made aware of it through orientation," Holness said. "It is beneficial, but its not a right…what we offer is the availability of these services to assist in ensuring that our students get as much of a realistic education as possible."

Holness added that the clinic relies on professors to refer students if they notice that students are squinting or need a new pair of glasses. The program is open to all members of the public, he said, but the program's managers prefer working with clients who otherwise could not afford an eye exam.

"One of the reasons why I personally do not subscribe to rigorous advertising is that we don't want to be competing with our graduates, because our prices are so low; we do offer the service, but at the same time we have to be cognizant of the fact that in the real world, people have to make some money too, so I don't want to compete with the people who graduate," he said.

Vision Care program manager and faculty member Nina McKie said public awareness of the clinic outside the campus has risen in the last year and continues to grow. Only about 20 percent of the clinic's clients are students, faculty and staff from inside the college.

Many of the patients are referred from homeless shelters and employment assistance programs.

Although students work on clients, McKie stresses that they work alongside eye care professionals.

"Students are doing, what we call the preliminary testing… obviously under the watchful eye of myself, as a licensed optician, making sure that all the tests are done properly," she said.

Once the preliminary testing has been completed, she said, the students perform some of the eye exam, but the work is finalized by a licensed optician and optometrist. Opticians work on the fitting and adjustments of optical products, such as glasses. Optometrists perform eye examinations, and can treat vision problems as well as detect signs of disease and abnormal conditions.

The clinic does not treat eye diseases, but rather refers patients to specialists if they are needed.

As far as the health of the eye, Dr. Mark Schwartzberg, the optometrist on staff, completes the patient's assessment or diagnosis and writes the final prescription.

"You can get a full eye exam,'' McKie said. "I mean, we're not talking about just a traditional routine exam. We test for glaucoma. We test for all [things related] to the health of the eye, so most people are very grateful that they can come and pay $15, and know that they are getting a very good evaluation.''

There are slight differences between this clinic and regular optical practices, she said.

"It tends to take a bit longer because they [students] are here to be trained in all the different assessments to help our students increase their learning," she said.  "It's not a 15 or 30-minute exam. Usually, our exams can run anywhere from 1 to 2 hours."

It can take three to four months to schedule an appointment, but Nicole Rutsky, 29, of Hollywood, doesn't seem to mind at all.

A patient since June 2008, Rutsky, who works in her family's business, said she isn't missing anything from a regular eye care facility, except a heftier bill.

"Even with the insurance my sister pays, her co-pay is much more than what I pay here," said Rutsky.  "I don't have vision insurance. It's still cheaper to come here, and it's the same care."

Not only is the eye care far more affordable, but the eyewear is, too. And it's the same kind of eyewear you would find anywhere else.

McKie said the clinic uses the same vendors as other eye-care professionals and offers the same eyeglass frames and contact brands. But while the clinic's markup is 40 percent, many other eye-care centers have 200 to 300 percent markups, she said.

Discounts like these make clients such as James feel good about wearing stylish glasses without emptying their pocketbooks.

"They have lovely glasses for a reasonable price. That Fendi right there, people might think I pay $500, $600 for those glasses, but I did not. I paid, like, $110," she said.

Depending on the patient's eye prescription, a more basic option for glasses could cost as little as $60.

The program's affordability comes from its focus on students' gaining real world experience, and less on turning a profit.

"We are not in the retail business. We are training students for the future, in this business," Mckie said.

Students from the program have a 95 percent pass rate in state and national exams and certification.

Thirty-three year old Tarkeshwar Moheeputh, a Vision Care Clinic student, said he enjoys the "real-world" experience he gets at the center.

"This program teaches you how to work with patients…It's an enjoyable experience, I think it's fantastic," he said.

Regardless of how the word is getting out, the growth of the Vision Care Clinic continues to give students a chance at the eye care career they want, while giving citizens a better chance of receiving the eye care that they need.

Moheeputh said he finds satisfaction in providing that care.

"You know, if people have a problem with their eyes, they can't see anything, and here you help them to see, so you feel very happy when you dispend a pair of glasses and they can see the world."

Kristal.Roberts@Gmail.com

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Vision Care Clinic

WHERE: Broward College North Campus, 1000 Coconut Creek Blvd., Coconut Creek,  Building 41

WHEN: Appointments are made on Mondays and Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

COST: Full eye exam: $15 for glasses, $30 for contacts. Eyeglass frame prices vary

CONTACT: To schedule an appointment, call 954- 201-2400.