Ontario’s optometrists not optimistic

Allan Bradbury
Staff writer

The Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) released an update this week on their negotiations with the provincial government.

As of Sep.1, 2021 optometrists across Ontario stopped offering exams covered under OHIP in protest of what it sees as unfair funding.

In Fort Frances, Dr. Bruce Lidkea of Lidkea Optometry says the government was advised in the spring that OAO would be withdrawing OHIP covered services as of September 1. He says the members are prepared to weather the storm until the government gives them what they’re asking for.

“From the optometrists that I’ve talked to, we’ll hold out as long as it takes,” Lidkea said.

This is because currently, optometrists lose money on OHIP insured patients.

According to a letter written by the OAO, accounting firm BDO did an audit of the costs of optometry services and determined that the average expense of conducting an eye exam is $75.51 to cover rent, staff, equipment and utilities, before the optometrist’s own fee. Currently, optometrists receive an average of $44.65 per service. At that rate, the optometrists themselves receive no compensation and are forced to cover the remainder from elsewhere.

This places Ontario as the lowest level of compensation, out of provinces which provide eye care for residents under 18-20 and over 65. Some provinces do not provide eye care via their provincial medical systems.

The OAO says that the Ministry of Health did not communicate with optometrists from Dec. 5, 2020 until Aug. 5, 2021. According to the letter sent out by the OAO: “The government has offered optometrists an increase of 8.48%. Such an increase would move the average payment for an eye exam from $44.65 to $48.43 requiring the average Ontario optometrist today to still pay more than $27 out of pocket to examine an OHIP-insured patient.”

Lidkea spent six years as a member of the OAO board. During his time the goal of OAO was to make headway in negotiations with the provincial government.

“I spent two terms on the board of the OAO and that was our main mandate the entire time was to get meaningful negotiations with the Ontario government. It’s very frustrating and I think they’ve really left us no choice but to withdraw services because we’ve exhausted all other alternatives.”

The OAO is looking for a 65 percent increase in funding, with the hope of reaching MB’s $77.18 level which would then make a tie for the lowest amount of funding among provinces who support optometry exams.

Opposition New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath issued a press release Monday calling on the government to “restore children’s and seniors’ vision care urgently.”

“Doug Ford is forcing all children, teens and seniors to go without vision care in order to save a buck. He doesn’t want to spend the money, and it’s everyday people who are paying the price,” the release read.

Lidkea Optometry is also a teaching site for the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry and Vision Science, hosting fourth year optometry students for internships. Lidkea says because of the way the government treats optometrists many of the students graduating from the program do not stay in Ontario.

“A lot of my students, when they graduate, refuse to practice in Ontario,” Lidkea said. “Because of the fact that it is the most restrictive and the least paid province.”

On a local level, Lidkea says he hasn’t heard too many complaints from patients who can’t get an appointment.

“Once we discuss the issue with patients, they’re quite understanding.”

As for why optometrists couldn’t simply charge the extra to the patient, Ontario provincial legislation requires that eligible patients have their exams funded through OHIP. So, even patients who might have coverage through their parents’ employer or other insurance cannot receive coverage for optometric care.

“We don’t have the option to quit OHIP per se,” Lidkea said. “Because it’s written into the legislation that we can’t charge patients if they’re covered through OHIP for OHIP related services or else we get a hefty fine.”

“Optometry in Ontario hasn’t had a contract in 30 years,” Lidkea said. “In the 30 years we’ve only had one raise and that was 20 years ago. I don’t think anybody would tolerate that from their employer.”