Ontario in standoff with optometrists over exam fees

Eighty days and counting and the staring contest between the Ford Government and the province’s optometrists continues, with neither side willing to blink.

Optometrists began withholding services covered by the province’s health plan on Sept. 1, after warning they would no longer offer them at a financial loss. Annual eye exams are covered by OHIP for residents who are 19 and under, 65 and older, and others who have specific health conditions. But for decades, the province has only reimbursed optometrists a portion of those fees.

After nearly three full months, there has been little progress to restart negotiations, which broke down last summer with both sides accusing the other of acting in bad faith.

Read more: Optometrists to withdraw OHIP-covered services after breakdown in government talks

Under daily prodding from opposition parties, Minister of Health Christine Elliott has repeatedly asked optometrists to come back to mediation. Optometrists have been clear they will, if the province compensates them for their services.

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Meanwhile, thousands of patients in need have been left in the middle, including Tracey McCannell.

“I was in a place where I could lose my sight,” said McCannell, who has been dealing with recurring bouts of shingles on her eye. “It feels like it’s being pulled, like your eye is being pulled,” she said, describing the pain, “it’s debilitating because you can’t function.”

She said her doctor has repeatedly been willing to treat her free of charge. But many other patients haven’t been so lucky.

The Minister of Health’s Parliamentary Assistant, Robin Martin, told Global News the government isn’t about to write a blank cheque and urged the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) to return to mediation. Despite the stalemate, Martin wouldn’t commit to any concessions to improve the relationship.

Read more: Ontario government to give optometrists $39M as they threaten to withdraw services

“They walked away from the table and they have not been back since, despite on-going invitations from the mediator every week to come back,” said Martin.

The head of the OAO said that’s not true. “There’s been nothing formal,” said Dr. Sheldon Salaba, “so I just think that’s been another tactic of something they’re saying in the media.”

Dr. Salaba said he sent his phone number to Minister Elliott last week, through a letter sent by NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath. He said she hasn’t called yet.

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“Their behaviour of engagement around this has been poor,” said Dr. Salaba, “so I do think that the onus is on them to come back to us and get us back into a true negotiating arrangement.

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Ontario optometrists hold rally over compensation at Queen’s Park – Oct 6, 2021

Not all members of the Ford Government are in line with its approach, including Thornhill PC MPP Gila Martow. A former optometrist in her private life, with many family members in the field, Martow said she doesn’t agree with the tactics being used by her caucus.

“I think that it’s really up to the government to one of two things,” said Martow, “either agree to setting up a formal negotiating process and to do that in writing, or to offer the optometrists, again in writing, a commitment to cover the costs of delivering OHIP services.”

Robin Martin, who said her glasses were provided by Martow’s optometrist sister, responded to her caucus-mate’s criticism by pointing out she’s not running for the Progressive Conservatives in the next election and that she is in a conflict of interest situation.

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