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Heather Davidson-Meyn says her daughter, Madeleine Meyn, needs glasses, but the Toronto mom hasn't been able to get the seven-year-old an appointment amid ongoing job action.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Weeks into a new school year in which children are finally back in the classroom, Heather Davidson-Meyn learned some troubling news about her daughter during meet-the-teacher night.

“She told us that my daughter wasn’t seeing the board. She needs glasses,” said Ms. Davidson-Meyn, a photographer in Toronto. “She moved her up to the front of the class as much as she can but she still thinks there’s an issue.”

Ms. Davidson-Meyn is already worried about her daughter, who is in Grade 2, being behind in her learning after doing virtual school all of last year. She called her optometrist, and was told she couldn’t get an appointment. Try your family doctor, the optometrist’s office said.

A job action by the Ontario Association of Optometrists, which withdrew Ontario Health Insurance Plan services on Sept. 1 for those 19 and younger and 65 and over, has so far meant that an estimated 650,000 people have not been able to access eye care, Sheldon Salaba, president of the OAO, said in an interview. As well, 16,000 cataract referrals have been delayed since the action began, he added.

The province said the OAO refuses its invitation to resume negotiations over the funding dispute.

Ontario willing to discuss optometrist costs, but won’t write blank cheque: Elliott

Ontario eye exams cancelled as optometrists’ fight drags on

The impasse has left children such as Ms. Davidson-Meyn’s daughter struggling in school, and parents worried that more serious eye issues are going undetected. Meanwhile, it presents a serious quality-of-life challenge for the seniors in Ontario who are in need of eye care, said Bill VanGorder, chief operating officer and chief policy officer of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

“Older Ontarians are still stuck in their homes,” Mr. VanGorder said. “They can’t go out as much as they would like to. They’re isolating themselves. If you can’t comfortably read or watch television, what are they going to do, sit there humming to themselves?”

Lack of access to eye care poses an even more serious threat than boredom, as significant as that may be. A study conducted by Fighting Blindness Canada found that nearly three million optometry visits did not happen across the country because of the pandemic, said Doug Earle, president and chief executive officer of the organization.

“Almost 1,500 people have experienced vision loss because of the COVID cancellations,” he said. As well, 143,000 eye surgeries and 70,000 eye injections to stabilize sight had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. The current impasse, he said, “is just compounding the problem.”

“Our demographics are changing to where the drivers for blindness are happening – age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic vision complications, cataracts. We’re unfortunately in this perfect storm and research has delivered treatments for three out of four people if they’re diagnosed early and if they have access to treatment. And if those two things don’t happen, then we may not have treatments that can stabilize their sight,” he said. “We need both parties to get back to the table.”

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, Dr. Salaba at the OAO has said.

“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,” says Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Health.

The government has also offered to increase OHIP fee reimbursements to optometrists by 8.48 per cent, retroactive to April 1, 2021, as well as immediately strike a joint working group to collaborate on investigating the cost of overhead.

However, Dr. Salaba said in the interview the government refuses to negotiate in good faith. “There have been no negotiations. It’s just been political tactics and games.”

As the dispute drags on, those stuck in the middle worry about their health or the health of their children. Julie Doherty, a 69-year-old retiree who lives just north of Stouffville, Ont., had to cancel her annual eye checkup this summer because of a surgery.

“I’ve worn glasses since I was five years old and I am religious about that checkup,” she said. By the time she called to reschedule the examination, she was told she could make an appointment but it might not happen because of the job action. Three weeks ago she suffered an eye emergency.

“I was seeing flashing lights and junk in my eye,” she said. “It panicked me.”

Ms. Doherty was able to see an optometrist, but she wonders if her emergency could have been prevented if she had been able to secure an appointment earlier.

“Could we have headed this off had I had my regular yearly checkup? But we’ll never know.”

Narie Ju Hong’s two children, 8 and 11, both finished a long course of vision therapy in April.

Her son was able to have an eye test before the job action began, which to her relief confirmed his eyes are still fine. But her daughter is still waiting to see an optometrist.

“If I had known that I would have sent her before September,” Ms. Ju said. “I’m a little bit anxious knowing that they’ve had previous issues.”

Patients who had optometrist appointments are being put on a wait list, and optometrists are helping anyone who needs emergency care navigate the system, Dr. Salaba said.

Ms. Davidson-Meyn recently took to Facebook to see if anyone might know of an optometrist who would give her daughter an eye exam. She managed to track one down and secured an appointment last week.

“She needs glasses and is excited!” Ms. Davidson-Meyn said.

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