Optometrists in Ontario are poised to withdraw services covered by provincial health insurance starting Wednesday after a breakdown in talks with the government over reimbursement for procedure costs.
Dr. Sheldon Salaba, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, said Tuesday afternoon that the work action would likely go ahead the next day, after hearing no further word from the government.
"Unfortunately, both parties aren't talking currently and it does look like a service withdrawal is going to happen," Salaba said in an interview.
That means people whose eye exams are insured by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan -- including children, teenagers, seniors and people with specific health conditions -- will have their appointments cancelled starting Wednesday and won't be able to schedule appointments going forward, he said.
"People are going to be putting patients on waiting lists until the government commits to covering the operating costs of providing services and we're able to get back to the table with them," Salaba said.
He estimated that around 25,000 appointments could be cancelled in a day.
The optometrist group has argued its members are underfunded for the services and are absorbing about 45 per cent of eye exam costs.
Salaba argued the current situation is untenable because it forces optometrists to pay for the services, using revenue that would otherwise go to equipment upgrades or staff salaries. He said it would take an increase of about 70 per cent reimbursement to cover current operating costs for services.
The government has offered an 8.48 per cent increase for reimbursements. It has also said it will pay optometrists $39 million to retroactively account for increased costs of services, funds that will go out in October regardless of the outcome of the talks.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a tweet on Tuesday that the professional association "said no" to further mediation over the weekend.
"There is a fair and reasonable plan on the table. I urge the (Ontario Association of Optometrists) to commit to working with us to reach an agreement," she wrote.
The province said approximately 2.9 million Ontario residents received provincially insured optometry services in 2019-2020.
A spokeswoman for the health minister said the rate for provincially insured eye exams ranges from $42.50 to $47, with additional fees for other assessments.
Salaba said optometrists will help patients navigate their options during the period of service withdrawal and encouraged people to still call with urgent needs.
"We don't want to see anybody harmed during this time," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press