Jennie Stevens MPP, St. Catharines

Government of Ontario

Two months and no movement towards deal with Ontario optometrists

Published on November 3, 2021

Elizabeth Lacey just turned 65 years old.

She has three different pairs of eyeglasses — one for driving, another for distance and a third for reading.

Anytime there’s an adjustment to her eyes, the Niagara Falls resident has to modify each of her glasses.

On top of that, at her last appointment, Lacey was told she has the beginnings of glaucoma, an eye condition that damages the optic nerve and can lead to blindness.

Her last visit to an optometrist was in 2019, with her next covered appointment scheduled for November. But as the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) continuing to withdraw its services of all individuals covered by OHIP – including people over 65, those under 20 and patients with specific medical conditions — that appointment will have to wait.

On Monday, Lacey received a call from her eye doctor, saying her appointment is indefinitely postponed.

Adjusting her prescription is more of an annoyance, not a “live or die situation” said Lacey, but her father, who has since passed away, had age-related macular degeneration and went blind in one eye. So she understands the importance of eye health and the significance of eye issues that require constant care.

“We are keeping an eye on that too, that is my concern. That is why it’s important for me to see the eye doctor,” Lacey said. “There are some serious eye issues that need constant care and I’m wondering what’s happening to the seniors that this is happening to.”

Lacey, who said the situation has caused her “a great deal of stress,” emailed her local MPP, Wayne Gates. In an interview with the Standard on Monday, Gates said he presented an online petition last week to provincial parliament with more than 100,000 signatures — just one of a number of petitions being signed throughout Ontario.

Gates, who represents the Niagara Falls riding, said the withholding of OHIP services is a big issue within Niagara, affecting children and seniors.

“This is on the government to get back to the table and negotiate a fair and reasonable collective agreement for all parties … that’s got to get done. It’s got to get done immediately,” he said.

“It's the responsibility of the provincial government. They can point fingers all over the place and they've done that in a lot of issues in the province of Ontario, but the reality is the residents of the province of Ontario need eye care.”

On Sept. 1, Ontario optometrists began informing all individuals covered by OHIP that the OAO is withdrawing services for the foreseeable future. The provincial government covers routine eye examinations, but unlike other OHIP-covered health services, the province does not cover the cost of delivering an eye exam.

The OAO said it has not seen a substantial increase in funding in the last 30 years, with optometrists absorbing half the cost of each service.

Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for the Minister of Health, said in a statement Monday that the OAO continues to decline the invitation to resume negotiations.

The statement read, in part:

“This is especially concerning as they continue to tell the public they are at the table when they are in fact, not. 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 the government has made a one-time payment of $39 million to the optometrists across Ontario, as well as offering to increase the OHIP fee by 8.48 per cent.

Lacey said she and her husband Kevin lived in Alberta and Winnipeg before settling in Niagara, and the comparison between the services was stark. Lacey said she was shocked to learn how far behind Ontario was for a “progressive” province.

“I felt like that we weren’t getting the same level of eye care we had got out west,” she said.

“(Eye doctors) provide an essential service to me and they should be paid for that service and they shouldn’t not be able to update their equipment because they’re not getting enough funding from the government.”

Kevin Lacey said he wrote to Doug Ford and received a similar reply to the one sent by the Ministry of Health, and added he was “a little bit disappointed” in the response. He said the offer was another example of somebody “drowning 10 feet from shore” and “(Ford) throws a line halfway out.”

“Big numbers are big numbers but if you break it down, it breaks down to probably next to nothing,” said Kevin, who said he also wrote to the OAO, but has yet to receive a response.

“Sit down and talk. Sit them in a room and get this thing resolved. It’s affecting a lot of people, it’s going to affect me. I know I’m having problems with one eye and I can’t do anything about it.”

“We’re collateral damage to what they’re doing.”

Welland optometrist, and OAO member, Dr. Richard Saari said the comment from the Ministry of Health is the same statement they put out after the initial breakdown of discussions in August.

The 8.48 per cent increase means optometrists are subsidizing about $30 per exam, and the payout “did not help the current situation as they even paid deceased and retired optometrists.”

“The government has made zero attempts to reach out to the OAO since they walked away,” said Saari. “The OAO is not like the (Ontario Medical Association) and costs of $12,000+ per day of negotiations is not sustainable if discussions are in bad faith.”

Like Gates, St. Catharines MPP Jennie Stevens said she has heard from local residents within the community asking her to get Ford back to the table. Niagara, and specifically St. Catharines, is one of the oldest populations in Ontario, and “Ford needs to put them first and he needs to get to work,” she said.

“Eye care is actually health care and if we don’t look after our health care and our eye care … then you’re going to end up with more waits in the hospital and that’s what we don’t want.”

In addition to seniors, it is affecting Niagara children as well, who are struggling, in some cases, to read the blackboard at school, Stevens said. Vision should be part of healthcare, and “nobody should be suffering for not being able to see.”

“What I want to see is Doug Ford just fulfilling the least of his obligations as Premier and again, to sit at the table, listen and get to work.”