Haliburton optometrists prepare for job action, calling for ‘fair pay’

By Grace Oborne

The Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) have voted to stop all non-emergency OHIP-covered services and procedures starting Sept. 1 unless the Ontario government takes measures to provide adequate funding.

This means that as of Sept. 1, anyone that tries to book an OHIP-covered eye-exam with an optometrist in Ontario, including Haliburton County, will be turned down, with the exception of emergencies.

“It’s a cumulative action to help all optometrists across Ontario. It’s really not an individual choice, we have to think as a collective group, and we have to work as a unified collective group to go towards finding a solution that not just helps certain optometrists in certain places, but then can work for the overall betterment of the optometry profession,” said Kinderpal Singh, who, alongside his wife Dr. Amardeep Bhogal, recently relocated to Haliburton.

Singh, who was trained overseas, is waiting for his license that will allow him to become a practicing optometrist in Canada. He will be joining the team at Haliburton Vision Care Centre shortly.

Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott informed the Echo that this was an issue she was working hard on, in an attempt to find a reasonable resolution.

“I recently met with OAO, who represent our local members as well. I’ve been in communication with the Ministry of Health on this long standing issue, and have been assured that working on a solution is a priority. To be clear, our government will continue to fund OHIP optometry services,” Scott said.

The Ministry of Health provided an update on Monday morning (Aug. 9), stating negotiations between the province and the OAO were underway.

“The Ministry of Health and the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) resumed discussions concerning our shared commitment to develop a plan that is fair, sustainable and effective in supporting the province’s optometrists in delivering high-quality care to Ontarians now and into the future,” the update read.

“To that end, on Aug. 6, the Ministry proposed to engage a third-party expert mediator to assist us in finding a resolution and the OAO is considering this option,” the statement continued.

OHIP covers eye exams for seniors, children under the age of 19, and adults with medical conditions. Optometrists are reimbursed for services that are provided to people in these groups.

According to Dr. Rene Benoit, an optometrist in Haliburton, those reimbursement rates, around $45, no longer reflect the true cost of OHIP-covered procedures.

“The basic overhead cost to deliver this service has been calculated by the Association to be $90 per examination, leaving optometrists to absorb the $45 difference, and this has become a completely untenable situation, because the approximate $45 fee paid to optometrists for subsidized eye examinations has not changed since 1989, 32 years, when overhead costs of delivering eye-exams was far, far lower,” Dr. Benoit said.

“The only way that some optometrists have been able to stay afloat is with earnings from fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses, and by charging appropriate fees (usually about $100 ) for non-OHIP-covered eye examinations (20 to 64 year-olds with no serious medical or ocular conditions),” Dr. Benoit told the Echo.  

The Ontario Association of Optometrists wants the government to cover the actual costs of delivery for subsidized eye examinations. Optometrists in the province are determined that the job action will carry out a as long as it takes for their demands to be met.

“The harder we push, we’re hoping the shorter the job action is. We don’t want it to go on for very long,” said Dr. Bhogal.

Optometrists have mixed emotions about the job action because they want to care for their patients.

“It’s mixed emotions, because we understand that there are people that only come in because their eye exam is covered. Those are all the vulnerable categories where things can often go wrong, so we definitely know that if it’s not funded by the government, we’re going to have a hard time getting those people in for regular checkups and things are going to go missed, and diseases are going to go on un-monitored,” added Dr. Bhogal.

Both the OAO and its registered members are keen to press home the point that this financial disconnect has gone on for far too long, and, in our current climate, it just isn’t feasible for the industry to essentially absorb 50 per cent of the cost of OHIP procedures moving forward.

“We want to raise awareness most of all. I think when people keep coming in to get a service, they take it for granted. Understand that if we actually want to keep our doors open, we can’t keep charging what we charged about 30 years ago. I think now it’s coming to the point where we’re running into a loss. One could be an optometrist that is forced to close their doors, just because they’re not getting the funding that they need to keep everything open,” said Singh.

“We want to work with the government, to reach a solution. Let’s keep providing this care, because down the road, if we don’t take care of these people now, their eyesight is going to be bad in the future,” Singh said.

Dr. Bhogal reiterated that optometrists are happy to come to the table and negotiate, stating a peaceful resolution benefits all parties.

“You know, we want to work with the government and we do really hope that they can come up with a solution with the Association. We really don’t want to lose the government funding for it, because we want to make sure everyone that needs eye care, gets eye care,” added Dr. Bhogal.