Pay dispute between Ontario optometrists and government nears two month mark

The dispute between optometrists and the province is nearing the two-month mark, meaning almost four million people in Ontario still have no access to eye tests.

“Normally I have my eyes tested every year, because my mother had a history of glaucoma and macular degeneration," said Don Brooks of Caledon, Ont.

Brooks is 66 years old and anyone who is over the age of 65, under the age of 20 or has certain eye conditions are currently not able to get an eye exam in Ontario due to a pay dispute between optometrists and the Ontario government.

As the work stoppage drags on, some Ontario patients are traveling to Quebec and the United States to have their eyes tested.

Brooks, a snowbird who winters in Florida, said he wants to get his eyes checked and if he can’t get an eye exam in this province he will get one when he goes to Florida next month.

“When I said I might have to go to the United States to get my eyes tested, they said well if you have to - you have to," said Brooks.

Optometrists in Quebec said they are also getting calls from people in Ontario who want travel there to gets their eyes tested.

Optometrists in Ontario say they're the lowest paid in Canada and that the province pays about $44 for an eye exam, which the group said only covers about half the cost.

The province did give optometrists $39 million and offered an 8.48 per cent raise, but the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) said that doesn’t allow the profession to catch up from years of underfunding.

OAO President Dr. Sheldon Salaba said the association is disappointed the dispute has not been resolved yet and blames the government for the stalemate.

"We are sitting here and waiting for them to come back to us and establish some terms of engagement which will allow us to enter a robust negotiating process” said Salaba.

But on Friday Ontario Premier Doug Ford said it was the optometrists who needed to get back to the negotiating table.

“You can’t negotiate by yourself,” said Ford. “As premier I’m asking you please come to the table. The only people you are hurting are the people of Ontario, so I want a deal done."

Salaba said Ford saying he wants a deal done offered a “glimmer of hope” that one can be reached.

“It's the first time we have heard from him in 12 months. I’m glad he is finally acknowledging that this is an issue for him and his government” said Salaba.

The province has said it is willing to give optometrists more funding to help cover their operating costs, but said it won't hand over a blank cheque.

Some patients say they're willing to pay for their eye exams, but that's not allowed in Ontario as patients can't pay for a service that is covered by OHIP.

Following our report Alexandra Hilkene, Press Secretary to Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christiane Elliott wrote "To be clear, any decision to withdraw optometry services is the decision of individual optometrists. Our government continues to fund OHIP-insured optometry services and that funding continues to increase year-over-year with utilization.”

"The College of Optometrists of Ontario has made clear that if an individual optometrist decides to withhold care from their patient, they are expected to take steps to ensure patients can continue to receive appropriate care, such as referrals."