How to cut the cost of glasses, contacts and laser eye surgery

You can improve your sight without breaking the bank – if you know where to look, says Kate Hughes

Over 90 per cent of us are more scared of losing our sight than any other sense, and yet one in four adults in the UK has not had an eye test in the last two years – the recommended maximum gap between tests.

Research by YouGov, on behalf of Action for Blind People, recently found that nearly 30 per cent of those people hadn't done so because they thought it was expensive. But while designer frames and light-sensitive lenses can set you back a small fortune, protecting your sight doesn't have to be financially blinding.

The NHS will cover the costs of your sight test and provide money-off vouchers for glasses if you are under 16, or under 18 and in full-time education, or are 60 or over. Some health conditions may also mean you are eligible for free tests. If you have or are likely to develop glaucoma – a condition which affects the optic nerve and causes problems with peripheral vision – if you are diabetic, are blind or partially sighted, or have complex lenses including certain types of bifocal or powerful lenses, or if you have an eye condition that requires sight tests at a hospital, you will probably not have to pay for eye tests.

Those on income support, jobseekers allowance, and pension credits should also be able to get sight tests for free and discounted glasses. People who use computers at work – around half the population – are also entitled to free tests from their employers via the Eyecare voucher scheme, and could be eligible for vouchers for the cost of spectacles. If you think you qualify, you should contact your human resources adviser for more information.

Even if you have to pay for a test, "it will only cost you an average of £24," says Richard Tolson of Action for Blind People. "If you get tested every two years, you are talking about £1 a month to protect your sight. The cost of an eye test is a small price to pay compared to the devastating cost of losing your sight."

Unfortunately, if your focus does need a tweak and you're not entitled to vouchers, the bill for the glasses or contact lenses themselves can be a different story. If you buy your specs or lenses from the high street, it may only cost the manufacturer around £7 to produce the average pair of glasses, but you can easily end up paying hundreds of pounds for the frames and lenses, especially if you need bi- or vari-focal lenses, specialist contact lenses, or just fancy something a bit special by a designer. Always look for free eye-test offers or two-for-one deals on glasses and prescription sunglasses to bring down the bill.



Surfing for a bargain

Shopping online can dramatically cut the cost of glasses because the supplier does not have to factor the costs of running a shop into the amount customers have to fork out. Many UK websites will accept the NHS Optical and Eyecare vouchers.

Buying contact lenses in bulk on the web can cut the cost of daily disposables from £1 a pair, or £30 per month, to as little as £204 for 12 months plus a free month's worth from the big retailers such as www.getlenses.com, www.contactlenses.co.uk, or www.visiondirect.co.uk, cutting the cost of each pair in half. Household names such as Tesco have also got in on the act, supplying contact lenses and sunglasses at www.tescoopticians.com, but the discounts here may not be as remarkable as on the other sites.

The lenses on offer are the same quality-assured ones you would get on the high street, such as Acuvue, Bausch & Lomb and Soflens. Monthly or annual lenses are also readily available online, so existing contact-lens users can shop around for the best deals.

But Adrian Knowles of the Eyecare Trust warns that going online may not always be worth the savings. "By purchasing glasses or lenses online you may sacrifice the reassurances you would get from a regulated optometrist. There is little recourse if something isn't right, particularly if the website is not UK-based. Glasses must be fitted correctly with the lens over the cornea, and being unaware of the care regime for contact lenses could lead to severe infection. You really have to know exactly what you are doing if you plan to buy online."

Online glasses retailers such as www.thespecsplace.com should demand a UK spectacle prescription before they will make up a pair of glasses for you. At first glance the glasses may not seem that much cheaper than on the high street, with Armani, Prada and Oakley frames setting you back £100 to £150. But bear in mind that these usually include the cost of the lenses, unlike the high street, where the cost is added on top.

Look for the online version of a high street name or at least evidence of a registered optometrist if you buy your glasses online, and make sure sunglasses carry the CE or BS EN 1836:1997 marks to confirm they provide adequate UV protection.



Laser surgery

"The cost of surgery has come down dramatically since it was first introduced," says Knowles. "Treatment that once cost £1,500 per eye is now just a few hundred pounds. But as this is an invasive medical procedure, it is probably not worth considering unless your prescription is worse than around +3.5, and you should seek all the reassurances you would with any surgery."

If you are sure about laser treatment, cutting your bill without compromising on the quality of the procedure is best done through offers from large-scale surgeries which may have free treatment slots at the end of a month or quarter, and will offer them at a discount. It is worth registering with the big centres, such as Ultralase (www.ultralase.co.uk), Optimax, (www.optimax.co.uk) or Optical Express (www.opticalexpress.com) for any offers through their mailing lists.

Laser surgery companies are aware that the cost of treatment is off-putting, so you could have a go at negotiating a discount. Otherwise these companies often have payment plans to help you spread the cost of treatment and may even have an occupational perk arrangement with your employer.



Insurance

Protecting yourself against the cost of eyecare can also add up. A comprehensive private medical insurance policy will have dental and optical cover as an optional extra. For example, Health-on-line.co.uk, underwritten by Axa PPP, will charge you an average of £7 a month, but that covers 80 per cent of your eye-care costs up to £250 every two years, and £15 towards an annual eye test. And don't forget that as this payment will cover you for most dental work as well you could also be on your way to a great pair of teeth, too.

A cheaper option is to consider a cash plan, such as those offered by the likes of Bupa, HSA or WPA. These can cost as little as £1 a month, and will make small cash payments every time you have an eye test, or need to get new glasses.

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