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With an eye on debate over cost, there's a day of surgery -- free

As the health care debate plods on in Washington, a local doctor has decided to take a more hands-on approach to treating the uninsured: He's performing surgery for free.

For one day in October, Dr. Kenneth D. Anthone will offer free cataract surgery to uninsured, low-income patients at his clinic in Amherst.

"If we could do about 25 procedures, that would be good. That's like a heavy day for me," Anthone said.

The continuing debate over health care reform has painted doctors in a negative light, he said, with the implication that many are unbudging naysayers to everyone without health insurance.

"But there isn't a week that goes by that we don't do at least one thing for free," he contends. "I'd like people to realize that with all the talk that's going on with health care, doctors still are humanitarians."

The day of free surgery, Oct. 23, is being held in conjunction with Mission Cataract USA, a grass-roots organization of ophthalmologists who follow in the steps of a Fresno, Calif., doctor who devoted one day in 1991 to restoring adequate vision to the uninsured.

The official Mission Cataract Day is the second Saturday in May, but many doctors choose to organize the event on their own time, according to the group's Web site.

"Any doc in Anytown, USA, can say, 'I think this is a good idea,' and they just run with it," said Dr. W. Clinton McClanahan, a Sacramento, Calif., ophthalmologist who has participated in the event for the last 14 years. This year, 22 doctors in 14 states are registered. McClanahan said the event serves as a sort of safety net for patients who are marginalized by the bureaucracy.

"It's just very evident that there's a lot of people who fall through the cracks," he said, ading that free assistance helps people get a step up into the system. "I've had a few patients who have gotten jobs after they got their vision back," he said, "and then they go get health insurance."

Anthone, a graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, was a regular participant with Mission Cataract Day during its early years but has recently spent his time traveling with humanitarian groups to nations such as Ecuador, Peru and China.

"I haven't done [Mission Cataract Day] in a few years because we've been going out of town on other missions," he said. "But I've realized, 'You know what, you really need to do charity at home again,' especially in this particular environment."

After a screening day Oct. 8, Anthone and his staff, who are also volunteering for the event, will choose which cases would benefit most from the procedure. In many cases, that means choosing younger candidates who are still in their working years.

"We want to get the young people in because they still have a lot of working years ahead of them," Anthone said. "If they can't see, they can't work."

But, he added, cataract patients of any age are welcome to attend the screening.

The surgery, which carries a market value of $5,000, is fairly simple, Anthone said. When the lens of the eye becomes clouded and impairs vision, doctors break up the lens, remove it and replace it.

"We break the lens up into thousands of tiny pieces, . . . and we remove it through a little incision that's less than 3 millimeters that doesn't even require a stitch," he said. Doctors then implant an artificial lens so the patient can see clearly without glasses.

A typical operation takes about 10 minutes, Anthone said. Although he says he hopes to restore the reputation of doctors, he isn't taking a stance on President Obama's health care proposal yet, not until the details of the bill become clear.

"There is no question that some reform is necessary, but there is part of the system that works pretty well," he said, contending that "everybody should be able to have access to health care."

McClanahan agrees. But even with the vigorous debate on health care, he doesn't see the demand for free surgery diminishing. "As long as there's people out there that have the need, we want to keep doing it," he said, "and I don't see an end to the need anytime soon."

Candidates for the free procedure must be older than 30, on limited income and have poor vision. Anyone interested should call nurse Karen B. Carlo at 634-6100.

Procedures will be done at Anthone Eye Center, 170 Maple Road, Amherst.

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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