Patients seek loopholes as dispute between optometrists and province drags on
An apparent standstill in negotiations has job action by the province's optometrists nearing the two-month mark.
The ongoing dispute between Ontario's optometrists and the provincial government has left almost four million OHIP-covered patients without appointments since the end of August.
Now, some desperate patients are trying to find a loophole at the University of Waterloo by making appointments with student optometrists.
"We've got a fair amount of calls," said Andre Stanberry, clinical director of the university's School of Optometry and Vision Science.
The University of Waterloo's School of Optometry fully participated in job action for the first two weeks but has since started accepting OHIP-covered patients they've previously treated in order for students to get necessary clinical training.
"The university has a dual mission," Stanberry said. "As optometrists, we do provide care for our patients but we also have the responsibility to educate our students as well."
New hopeful patients have been calling the clinic only to be disappointed.
"We only see patients who have been historically our patients that are OHIP covered. That allows students to have the necessary experience required to provide the care that they should be able to when they graduate," Stanberry said.
Both the University of Waterloo's School of Optometry and other optometrists said they have been redirecting callers to ophthalmologists, primary care doctors or the emergency room when necessary.
Patients offering to pay for service are out of luck as well. Under Ontario law, it's illegal for anyone to pay for services that are covered by OHIP.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO) said it had accounting firm BDO put together a report from 73 clinics, a sample size of the province, to calculate the average cost of an OHIP appointment.
The OAO is asking the Ontario government to cover the full cost instead of having clinics pay out of pocket for about half.
A spokesperson for the government said the sample size is not good enough and they would like to see more information in order to verify the number themselves.
The two sides haven't sat down together since August and appear to be at a stalemate.
"This is the reason we've been calling every day for the optometrists to come back to the mediator's table with the mediator who is ready, willing and able to mediate," said MPP Robin Martin, the Ministry of Health's parliamentary assistant. "We've shown good faith by making a $39 million dollar payment."
"They haven't reached out to us at all. I don’t know what they're talking about," said the OAO's president, Sheldon Salaba. "We are absolutely willing to sit and negotiate."
Despite both sides stating they are willing to negotiate, nothing is moving forward.
"We would like to come to an understanding with them, we understand that there have been some problems in the past," Martin said.
"We went from December of 2020 to August with no response from the government. We asked them to co-author a cost analysis," Salaba said.
He said the $39 million payment was not welcome and that it only represents one dollar per service. Salaba said he would've preferred the government keep that money and use it toward equalling future costs.
But according to Salaba, that money has already been put into the bank accounts of Ontario optometrists, including 155 who are retired or deceased.
Salaba said $80 is the minimum they expect to be compensated to cover the "hard costs" associated with OHIP appointments.
"I really think that we deserve the commitment" of equal reimbursement, he said.