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The Ontario Association of Optometrists will be 'pausing' the withdrawal of Ontario Health Insurance Plan services starting Tuesday.JOERG SARBACH/The Associated Press

Ontario’s optometrists will resume publicly-funded services for seniors and children in an act of “good faith” as they agreed on Monday to enter into formal negotiations with the provincial government following a funding dispute that has dragged on for months.

The suspension of Ontario Health Insurance Plan services on Sept. 1 for those 19 and younger and 65 and over by the province’s optometrists has meant that hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to access eye care. Thousands of cataract referrals have also been cancelled.

The Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) will be “pausing” the withdrawal of those services starting Tuesday, the group said in a statement, as talks start up with the province. The two sides have made the breakthrough after months of public feuding, with optometrists arguing their services have been chronically underfunded and the province accusing eye doctors of failing to negotiate.

“The OAO is committed to negotiating a sustainable funding model that aligns with how optometric care is funded in other Canadian jurisdictions,” it said in its statement announcing the start of formal negotiations and OHIP services.

“The OAO expects robust talks to begin immediately, noting that the swift resolution of this issue is a top priority for both optometrists and their patients,” it said.

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After two days of mediation in August, talks between the two sides broke down, with the OAO refusing to return to the table until the government commits to increase funding over the long term.

Ms. Elliott said she was pleased the group has agreed to join the government in direct face-to-face talks.

“As a result of this agreement to resume negotiations, the OAO has advised the Ministry of Health that any OHIP-insured eye and vision care services that were previously affected by this impasse will resume effective Nov. 23, 2021. Both parties have also agreed to a media blackout on this topic during the course of these negotiations. The Ministry of Health is at the negotiations table ready to reach a timely and fair agreement regarding this important matter,” she said in a statement.

The dispute between the OAO and the province centres on funding for services covered by OHIP.

Currently, OHIP pays for eye exams for people 19 and younger; those 65 and older; and people with special conditions, such as diabetes, glaucoma and macular degeneration, at about $45 an exam. But the true cost of an exam is $80, and government funding needs to reach that level, Sheldon Salaba, president of the OAO, has said. The OAO says Ontario optometrists receive the lowest funding of any province with publicly funded optometry services; in Manitoba, it is $77 and in Alberta, it’s $137, for instance.

The government previously offered a one-time payment of $39-million to the province’s 2,500 optometrists. It also offered to increase OHIP fee reimbursements to optometrists by 8.48 per cent, retroactive to April 1, as well as immediately strike a joint working group to collaborate on investigating the cost of overhead.

But the OAO has said that is not nearly enough to make eye care sustainable for optometrists who are covering costs out of their own pockets.

The news of resumed eye care services was welcomed by seniors and parents, although some expressed concern about backlogs.

“It’s about time,” said Julie Doherty, a 69-year-old retiree who lives north of Stouffville, Ont.

Ms. Doherty, who has been waiting for her annual eye exam since the work stoppage began, said she has often lost patience with the lack of negotiations between the OAO and the province.

“It’s been very frustrating,” she said. She’ll be calling her optometrist right away to see about an appointment.

Kathy Miller wonders about how appointments will be scheduled, worrying that some optometrists may not have kept accurate wait lists.

Ms. Miller, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in Peterborough, was diagnosed with glaucoma on Aug. 31. She has been waiting to have a follow-up appointment and receive whatever treatment is necessary ever since.

She has called her optometrist’s office eight times since the job action began. She has called a dozen other optometrists in Peterborough and another dozen in Toronto, all in the hopes of finding a short waiting list.

Ms. Miller has begun to have double-vision, and is losing her peripheral vision as well.

“I’m at the point where it’s a little bit scary,” she says of her vision loss.

She worries whatever treatment she receives may come too late to correct her vision entirely. “Are they going to tell us there’s this huge waiting list now? How are they going to prioritize?”

Narie Ju Hong called the resumption of services “great news.” Her eight-year-old daughter finished a long course of treatment in April, and Ms. Ju is eager for her to see an optometrist to make sure everything is fine.

“I’m quite anxious to get my daughter checked out,” Ms. Ju said. “I know so many parents have been waiting to get their kids’ eyes checked.”

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