Ontario’s optometrists are still in a stalemate with the provincial government – leaving millions of children and seniors without proper eye care – and a local doctor is joining the push for the two parties to re-engage in negotiations.

Dr. Gregg Agnew of the Kenora Optometry Clinic explains that all 2,500 or so optometrists across Ontario stopped providing OHIP-insured eye care on September 1 as a form of a strike against the government.

Dr. Gregg AgnewDr. Gregg Agnew with the Kenora Optometry Clinic. 

This means that routine eye exams and follow-up care for children under 19 and seniors over 65 has ended, as well as OHIP-insured exams for those with diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, acute ocular issues and more.

Unfortunately, provincial laws prevent anyone from paying for an OHIP-insured service, even out of their own pocket or if you have your own insurance plan, meaning these services are now unavailable until further notice.

“We’re asking the government for two things,” explained Agnew. “Number one, we would like to be reimbursed for what our chair time costs. Fair compensation. Number two, we are the only healthcare profession that doesn’t have a negotiating mechanism in place with the government. We’ve been totally ignored.”

Agnew and the Ontario Association of Optometrists say the sector is chronically underfunded by the province, and staff are constantly operating at a loss. They felt that their ‘strike’ action to withhold services was the only option they had left.

An eye exam costs an optometrist $80 per patient in staff wages and equipment, but they’re only being reimbursed about $44 per exam by OHIP – a rate that’s remained relatively consistent over the last 32 years. Ontario’s offer to the association was another $1 per exam, which was turned down.

“Our costs have gone up. We have expenses, we have overhead and staff. We have the same problems as everyone else. It’s not ‘fat cats’ looking for more money. It’s not that at all. We’re amazed it’s gone this far,” adds Agnew.

The issue isn’t prevalent across Canada either. Agnew explains that to reach Manitoba’s coverage rates, which are the closest to ours, Ontario’s optometrists would need a 65 per cent increase in funding. The second closest province is Quebec, needing a 125 per cent funding increase.

“We are the lowest-paid province in Canada. I’ve got one foot out of the door trying to retire. We have a hard enough time attracting optometrists to Kenora to begin with. And if you’re a young kid that just graduated and wanted to work, would you work here or a couple of hours west and make more money?” rhetorically asked Agnew.

The OAO adds that despite 100,000 letters from patients being sent to the province about the issue, the two sides haven’t met since August 5. The association says that’s been their only meeting with the provincial negotiators since.

“They made that one offer, and that was it. No negotiations whatsoever. That was it. What we’d like to do is sit down and talk. It would all probably go away quite quickly,” says Agnew.

“The OAO continues to remain at the negotiating table. Our team has never wavered in our commitment to sit at this table as we recognize the direct impact these discussions have on real people’s lives,” said Dr. Sheldon Salaba, President, Ontario Association of Optometrists.

“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.”

In response to the issue, Ontario’s Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott says they’re disappointed to see optometrists continue to withhold services – especially during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our government has made every effort possible to lay the foundation for a long-term relationship with the Ontario Association of Optometrists,” said Elliott, in a prepared response.

“This includes engaging a third-party mediator to assist us in reaching an agreement and offering a one-time lump sum payment as well as an immediate OHIP fee increase. This represents a significant and sustainable increase in today’s highly-constrained fiscal environment.”

Elliott adds they do remain at the negotiating table, but says it's the association who will not return to negotiations with the province after they turned down the mediator’s conditions in August and their $39 million offer. 

“I want to be clear that our government will continue to fund these optometry services through OHIP. Any decision to withdraw services is the decision of individual optometrists.”

“The College of Optometrists of Ontario has made clear that if an individual optometrist decides to withhold care from a patient, they are expected to take steps to ensure the patient can continue to receive appropriate care,” adds Elliott.

The OAO has created the Save Eye Care website to assist residents in contacting their local MPP about the issue. Their site can be found below.

Those who are having an eye emergency are asked to call the Kenora Optometry Clinic at 807-468-3649.