Local optometrist weighs in on province-wide strike

Local optometrist weighs in on province-wide strike
CALEDONIA—Shown is Dr. Kathleen Leonard (left), Dr. Annette Delio (centre), and aspiring optometrist Alex Dennis (right). Dennis sent a letter to the office of MPP Toby Barrett and to The Press asking for meaningful change to OHIP funding of eye care to allow her to stay close to home once she graduates from school. —Photo submitted by Dr. Delio.

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

Ontario “lowest funded province in the country” for public eye care

HALDIMAND—For the past two months, optometrists across the province have not been performing OHIP-insured eye exams for patients following an ultimatum issued to the Provincial government by the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) to come up with additional funding to cover costs.

Since September 1, over 650,000 Ontarians have not had access to eye care by optometrists and approximately 16,000 Ontarians have had their cataract referrals delayed.

Local optometrist Dr. Annette Delio, who runs a Caledonia-based family eye-care practice, provided a local look at the issue and how it is impacting local patients.

“For more than 30 years, the government has been underfunding eye care,” said Delio, noting that optometrists in Ontario perform approximately four million OHIP-insured eye exams, accounting for over 70% of their appointments. “Even though OHIP is publicly funded, the government only covers less than 50% of the costs to administer these exams.”

She explained how the underfunding has impacted her industry: “The quality of service we can provide is suffering. We can’t get that new technology, and we can’t run our offices the way people deserve when it comes to eye care in Ontario. Ontario is losing tons of talented young optometrists to other provinces where they do not have to take a loss with every government covered patient that they see.”

According to the OAO, funding for public eye care in Ontario is the lowest in the country, requiring a 70% increase to reach the next lowest province.

“Eye care is important for everyone’s overall health and we don’t want our care for our patients to be interrupted, but we are very concerned for the quality of care if the government does not come to the table,” said Delio. “Being the lowest funded province in the country comes with serious consequences. It means we cannot invest in protecting our most vulnerable patients.”

She said patients at her practice have been “overwhelmingly supportive”, with many telling her they have written letters to local MPP Toby Barrett as well as Ontario Deputy Premier Christine Elliot: “Obviously, our patients, like us, want to get back to the business of taking care of their eye health.”

Barrett said that the government, despite their efforts made, has had no success so far in working out a deal that would bring the action to an end.

“The OAO continues to decline the invitation from our independent, third-party mediator, who was chosen by the OAO, to resume negotiations,” said Barrett. “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.”

He continued, “We know that optometrists have been treated unfairly by previous governments. That’s why, despite the OAO’s refusal to come back to the table, we are making a one-time payment of $39 million to the province’s 2,500 optometrists to support their delivery of high-quality care for patients, both now and into the future. This is the start of what we are willing to do to support optometrists, not the end. Starting October 5, optometrists received confirmation of their payment, and payments flowed to optometrists across Ontario on October 15.”

OAO President Dr. Sheldon Salaba paints a different picture: “The OAO was at the table with the Ministry of Health and the mediator. After only two days of mediation in August, the Ministry walked away from the table. Only hours after walking away from mediation, they made an offer public in the media. Every move they made was right out of the bad faith negotiation textbook. Mediation costs our organization over $15,000 per day. We are a small organization that can’t afford to keep footing bills like that when the other party is not serious about negotiation.”

Salaba said the OAO is “still waiting for Minister Elliot’s team at the table they left us at,” stating that outside of a few publicity stunts in the media, they have not picked up the phone or emailed once since the job action started on September 1: “They are saying they want to behave differently than previous governments who created the problem, yet they are behaving exactly the same as their predecessors.”

Salaba claims that OHIP patients will immediately have access to primary eye care services as soon as the government “contacts us and commits to a sequence of robust negotiations where they truly intend to fix this problem by creating a sustainable eye care system in Ontario.”

Despite payments being issued, Delio said optometrists across Ontario have publicly rejected the offer: “While we understand $39 million may seem like a lot of money, it covers less than one quarter of the funding deficit to reach our cost to perform OHIP services in a single year. More importantly, it does not commit to any long-term solution or mechanism to address this crisis in eye care.” 

Although he did not touch on the nature of the calls he has received, Barrett said his office has been receiving many calls from the community. He hasn’t personally been in contact with any local optometrists since the strike began on September 1, under “direction from the Ministry of Health.”

Delio hopes for a resolution soon, touching on some of the ways the strike can impact local families: “You can imagine for kids that this is a fundamental period of growth for them. This is about catching inconsistencies or things that could impact them for the rest of their lives.”

She continued, “For seniors, quality of life is everything. 

As doctors, we want to make sure they have access to the best care – and they deserve that! Ontario’s aging population has placed an even bigger strain on a system that has failed to adapt.”

“It’s disappointing that the government doesn’t recognize or prioritize the eye health of Ontarians. We won’t stop until our most vulnerable receive what they deserve,” concluded Delio. “Our patients are depending on our tireless advocacy to ensure their children, our seniors, and those with existing eye conditions have the care they need to ensure the highest quality of life.”