Schreiner Demands Action on Government Impasse with Optometrists

Been to an eye doctor lately? If you’re eye care is covered by OHIP then probably not. For over a month now, the young and the old, whose eye heath is covered by government health insurance, have been stuck between that government and eye doctors, as Ontario’s optometrists demand a new deal to get their services completely covered by Queen’s Park. Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner says that enough is enough on this fight.

“It’s been very frustrating for people who are negatively affected by the withdrawal of services, and essentially almost everyone phoning into the [constituency] office is not blaming their optometrists,” Schreiner told Guelph Politico by phone on Wednesday. “People understand that it simply isn’t financially sustainable for optometrists to continue,  sing money every time they offer their services.”

The Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) organized it’s members to stop offering services to OHIP patients – young people 19 and under, people age 65 and older, and patients with specific medical conditions – starting on September 1. The impasse involves optometrists demanding that the Government of Ontario cover 100 per cent of the cost of eye exams, where presently it covers only 55 per cent and leaving doctors to absorb the rest.

“Government neglect has jeopardized access to eye care for those who need it most, undervaluing the eye health of Ontarians,” said OAO president Dr. Sheldon Salaba in a statement. “Optometrists are being fair and reasonable: we ask only that government commit to cover at least the cost of service delivery, and we’re giving them lots of notice to avoid any impact on patients.”

Adding frustration to the situation is that OHIP patients cannot pay the $80 fee for an eye exam that all non-OHIP patients have to pay when they see the eye doctor. It’s left optometrists with the difficult decision to not see OHIP patients at all during this stalemate.

“I’ve had conversations with a number of optometrists and this was a hard decision for them to make, because most people got into optometry to care for people,” Schreiner said. “But at some point, enough’s enough and over a decade now they’ve provided services at a loss and it adds up.”

Indeed, the original sin of the current impasse is when the former Liberal governement took eye exams off the list of services covered by OHIP in March 2006; that was when the formula of 55-45 was set. “Optometrists haven’t really had a negotiation with the government since 2011, so the current government inherited the problem, but the bottom line is they have to fix it,” Schreiner said. “In  fact, optometrists have been essentially subsidizing eye care for OHIP patients for over a decade now.”

The most recent official statement from the Ministry of Health on the stalemate was August 17, about two weeks before the OAO call to suspend service to OHIP patients. Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, told Guelph Politico in an email that the OAO has refused the government’s invitation to resume negotiations through a third-party mediator.

“This is especially concerning as they continue to tell the public they are at the table when they are in fact, not,” Hilkene said. “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.”

Hilkene added that the government will be making a one-time payment of $39 million to the province’s 2,500 optometrists despite their current job action. She also said that the government will be increasing the reimbursement by nearly 8.5 pr cent, which will be applied retroactively to April 1 of this year.

“It is our sincere hope that this good-faith gesture will demonstrate our government’s commitment to reach a fair and long-term agreement,” Hilkene said. “The OAO should say yes to our joint mediator’s invitation so we can continue discussions, and work with us to ensure Ontarians continue to access the care they need and deserve.”

Schreiner hopes this is the case noting that the financial assistance optometrists are looking for requires a relatively small investment when compared to the financial resources needed to address the surgical backlog or fixing long-term care, and more than that, it’s also good politics for the current government.

“This is such an easy one for the government because this is one of those times they can say that the previous government left this stinking mess, we had to clean it up, and we did clean it up,” Schreiner said. “You would think that politically they would want to do it.”

Schreiner took part in a rally on Wednesday at Queen’s Park with a number of optometrists and eye care professionals, including some from Guelph. Good old fashioned political pressure is now the tool to make this issue a priority with the government, the Green Party leader said.

“We’ve spent three years trying to get the current government to fix the problem and they haven’t budged,” Schreiner said. “I think at this point optometrists are thinking that the only thing that’s going to move the needle is to start withdrawing services, and hope that pressure both from optometrists, opposition parties and people who now cannot access services will put enough pressure on the government to do the right thing.”

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