Dispute between Ontario optometrists and provincial government continues, with patients caught in the middle

By Erick Espinosa

Over 2,100 optometrists across the province are asking for the Ontario government to commit to working out a funding deal they say should reflect the compensation their counterparts in other provinces receive for an eye exam.

“This government’s continued neglect only impacts our most vulnerable community members: seniors, children and those with existing eye conditions,” writes the president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO), Dr. Sheldon Salaba, in a statement released this morning. 

The Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) currently covers eye exams for those 19 years of age and under, 65 and older, and anyone with a special condition like glaucoma or diabetes. The cost is estimated to be roughly $80 per exam and OHIP only contributes around $45. But the OAO has been vocal that last month’s proposed funding increase by Health Minister Christine Elliott of 8.49 per cent, would still result in the average Ontario optometrist paying about $27 out of pocket to examine an OHIP-insured patient.

Alongside the increase, Elliott publicly announced she would make a “one-time payment” of $39 million directly to optometrists. A payment that was not negotiated with the OAO, according to Salaba. 

“Unilateral conduct of this nature is typically unlawful in labour negotiations and is a demonstration of the bad faith bargaining we’ve become accustomed to with this government,” he says, clarifying that they do not offer their consent for the government to deposit this retroactive payment into their accounts until a fair deal is reached.

“The announcement and payment are a blatant negotiation tactic that further demonstrates this government’s lack of interest in finding a real long-term solution to this crisis.” 

Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary for the Ontario health minister, says they are aware the OAO has been treated unfairly by previous governments. 

“That’s why despite the OAO’s refusal to come back to the table, we are making a one-time payment of $39 million to optometrists to demonstrate our commitment to reach an agreement.”

Adding that in addition to an immediate OHIP fee increase of 8.48 per cent, they have offered to immediately create a joint working group to collaborate on investigating the cost of overhead, recognizing it’s important to optometrists.

“Many provinces don’t even fund optometrists at all. Others fund eye exams only every other year while Ontario funds insured eye exams every year,” Helkene tells CityNews.

Following the government’s announcements in August and just two days of mediation, the OAO walked away from discussions, agreeing to return only if the government agreed to a more long-term sustainable increased funding model.

“The current impasse lays squarely at the feet of the OAO, which, instead of participating in good-faith negotiations, is choosing to demand an outcome before allowing them to start,” says Hilkene.

“It is not reasonable or responsible for the government to agree to any other increase without first engaging in a process of due diligence to validate the facts.”

On Sept. 1, optometrists put a pause on offering their services to OHIP-insured patients, in an effort to highlight the lack of funding. 

Since then, eye exams across the province for children, seniors and those with existing eye conditions have been cancelled. 

Parents like Laura Daly and her 13-year-old son, who is suffering from blurry vision and headaches, are one of the thousands of Ontarians caught in the middle of this dispute.  

“We went to make an appointment with our local optometrist and even though we pay for benefits for him, they still would not take him for an appointment, because he could be covered by OHIP,” she tells CityNews. “Then we went to emerge and they said they can’t do anything but get him back to his ophthalmologist ASAP.”

“No child or patient should be sent to the emergency room to access eye care, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” adds Hilkene. Clarifying that any decision to withdraw optometry services is the decision of the Optometrists Association of Ontario alone.

“We have written to the College to stress the importance of ensuring that during any job action its members conduct themselves appropriately in accordance with the College’s policies and guidelines,” Elliot’s office tells CityNews. Confirming that their mandate is focused on protecting the public and will investigate any complaints received.

The Ministry of Health says they have agreed to the conditions of the third-party mediator to continue discussions but that it is the OAO who has refused. 

The OAO says otherwise. Stating that it’s been nearly one month of further radio silence from Minister Christine Elliott and Premier Doug Ford but that Ontario optometrists are committed to defending access to publicly-funded healthcare for their patients.

“We won’t stop until our most vulnerable receive what they deserve.”

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