Is your kid due for their annual eye exam soon? If you have an appointment booked and you live in Ontario, you should expect a cancellation call any day now.
Since the beginning of September, Ontario optometrists haven’t been seeing any patients who are covered under OHIP—and that includes kids. Children in the province can’t currently have their eyes examined by an optometrist, and there’s no telling when that will change.
Here’s what you need to know about the optometrist situation in Ontario.
Why aren’t optometrists seeing kids right now?
Earlier this year, Ontario’s eye care professionals warned that they intended to withdraw their services for any patients who are covered by Ontario’s health insurance plan (OHIP), which includes kids under 19 (and also adults over 65). They say OHIP doesn’t pay them enough to cover their expenses.
According to the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO), optometrists in Canada’s most populous province are the lowest compensated in the country. They’re reimbursed $47 per exam; as a comparison, in Alberta, that number jumps to $137.
Ontario’s optometrists are asking for more money, and so far, the Ford government hasn’t been willing to meet their demands, so they took job action beginning September 1.
According to Claudia Lee, an optometrist in Whitby, Ont. and a member of the board of the OAO, a vote of the association’s members resulted in 96% agreeing to withdraw their services until their compensation is increased.
What should parents do if their child wakes up with eye pain, vision problems or some other eye emergency?
Call your optometrist, says Lee. “We’re still taking those calls, and we encourage them to contact us if there is an emergency.” The doctor won’t be able to see you, but they can advise you on where to go. Your options are your child’s regular healthcare provider, or, for urgent matters, the emergency department.
Unfortunately, some GPs and paediatricians aren’t doing in-person visits. What’s more, most lack the equipment to do a proper eye assessment, says Lee. What they can do is refer your child to an ophthalmologist. (Click here if you want to know the differences between optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians.)
What if a parent thinks their kid needs glasses?
If your child is having trouble seeing the teacher’s chalkboard or says words look blurry in books, your child may need glasses. This is where optometrists shine, but unfortunately, the job action means they can’t help right now. “In this situation, they’d be referred to their GP to get a referral to an ophthalmologist, or they would be put on a wait list for when the job action is over,” says Lee.
What if a parent is willing to pay out of pocket?
It’s illegal. Provincial law prevents anyone from paying for any OHIP-insured service, even if you have alternate insurance or wish to pay independently for insurance. If an optometrist accepted direct payment for an OHIP-covered service, they too would be breaking the law.
Is there any end to the job action in sight?
The matter has the attention of health minister Christine Elliott, who has so far offered a one-time payment of $39 million for retroactive costs, plus an increase of 8.48 percent in reimbursement. OAO president Sheldon Salaba spoke out against the payment offer in a news release, saying that his members would prefer the government keep the money and instead “commit to working out a deal where we will no longer receive the lowest compensation for an eye exam in all of Canada.”
The province and the doctors will surely come to an agreement eventually, but even then, kids will have to wait a while to see their optometrist, thanks to an inevitable backlog. “It’s going to take months and months for us to catch up,” says Lee.