Government fails to negotiate agreement with optometrists

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Optometrists across the province are threatening to stop all OHIP-covered services as of September 1st of this year, if the Ontario government doesn’t step up to the bargaining table.

According to the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO), the province’s 2500 optometrists provide over four million OHIP exams every year. This includes services for children, seniors and adults with disabilities. Only 55% of the cost of these exams is actually paid for by OHIP, leaving optometrists to cover the other 45%.

OAO President, Dr. Sheldon Salaba, says this is because the amount paid to optometrists for these essential services has only gone up slightly in the past 30 years. “In 1989, we were being paid $39.15 for an eye exam and in 2021, on average, we’re being paid $45, and we know that the cost to deliver the service is over $80”. Dr. Salaba says the problem is optometrists have never had any legislated structure that compels the government to negotiate with them around compensation measures. Because of this, all their efforts to engage with politicians and bureaucrats within the provincial government have fallen on deaf ears. They did meet with Health Minister Christine Elliot in November of last year, and she confirmed that optometrists should be compensated fairly for their services. However, when an offer came to the table, it came nowhere close to closing the funding gap. “Our membership is really frustrated and they’re angry because they’re not acting reasonably with us,” he says.

As a result, 96% of all optometrists in Ontario voted in favour of withdrawing all OHIP services to the public starting at the beginning of September. Because there is legislation surrounding optometrists charging for these services, this means that OHIP-covered patients across Ontario would not have access to eye care. “All we’re asking for to avoid this is that they enter a formal negotiation process with us, and we’re asking for them to figure out a funding solution that, at a minimum, covers the operating cost of delivering the service,” Dr. Salaba says.

Dr. Carla Eamon, whose practice has been in operation in North Grenville since 1988, says she really doesn’t want to have to withdraw services from her patients. However, as the population gets older, and more of her patients qualify for OHIP, it will make it hard for her to run her practice if the government doesn’t agree to compensate optometrists fairly. About 70% of her practice is currently OHIP patients. “We have children under OHIP, as well and some people with diseases under OHIP in the middle ages, but the bigger group is the cohort of people who need a lot of care, because they are seniors and we need to take care of them. But it’s becoming financially difficult for many optometrists to see a large group of seniors”, she says.

Optometrists do have other avenues to recoup costs, like non-OHIP patients and glasses sales, but Dr. Eamon says many just end up making sure they see more people to make ends meet. “You have to work longer hours than you used to,” she says.

Dr. Eamon hopes that public awareness will help push the government into action well before the September 1 deadline. As a local optometrist, she truly cares about her patients and doesn’t want any of them to be without care. “But the concern is that, unfortunately, talking to the government for 30 years nothing has happened, and we’re just not getting anywhere.”

Dr. Salaba says they have already been in touch with the government to advise them of their plans, and they are also planning on putting together a campaign to be launched towards the end of May. The OAO is ready to sit down with the government at any time to start negotiations, and they hope that the September 1 deadline will give them plenty of time to reach a suitable agreement. “Honestly, we really don’t want to have any impact to our patients,” he says. “This is not a measure that we take lightly at all, and it’s sad that we’ve been pushed to this point that we had to do so.”

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