By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mary Schawb’s complex medical needs have the potential to affect her eyesight.
But the 57-year-old Wallaceburg resident hasn’t been able to see an optometrist for the past 14 months and can’t get in for an appointment until March 2022.
“This is serious,” a worried Schawb told The Chatham Voice recently, noting she’s frustrated by the wait, and frightened by what could happen.
Macular degeneration, Type 2 diabetes and a rare disorder where her body’s connective tissues lack collagen are among the disabled woman’s difficulties.
“I want to get my eyes checked as soon as I can,” she stressed.
Schawb’s son Matthew Schawb, who also suffers from severe astigmatism and is at risk of developing macular degeneration, has been doing his best to advocate for his mother without any luck.
He’s contacted six area optometrists to see if he and his mother can get earlier appointments, but all but one have turned him down.
The Schawbs are among thousand of Ontarians affected by the withdrawal of services for OHIP cases by the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO).
The action primarily affects children, teens, seniors and the disabled, as adults 18 to 65 pay for an exam either through insurance or out of pocket.
On Sept. 1, the 2,500-member OAO began the work reduction in an attempt to get the Ministry of Health to forge a new agreement with them.
But the action cuts deep, as Ontario eye doctors routinely carry out 15,000 eye exams every business day.
In an interview with The Voice, OAO president Dr. Sheldon Salaba said he empathizes with the Schwabs’ plight, but he stresses the province’s refusal to address the problem is at the heart of the issue.
Currently, the Ministry of Health pays an eye doctor around $45 for each OHIP eye exam. But that’s a far cry from what optometrists receive in other provinces. Manitoba currently pays $77 for an eye exam under its health-care system, Quebec pays $106 and Alberta is at the top at $137.
Salaba said Ontario optometrists have only received a $5 increase in the past 30 years. He questions why the ministry refuses to come to the table.
“We provide over four million eye examinations a year,” Salaba explained. “I feel really sorry for patients and I’m sorry that it has come to this.”
The OAO said it costs at least $80 for an eye doctor in Ontario to provide an exam, meaning optometrists are presently subsidizing eye care in Ontario.
Salaba said he hopes the province will step up to the plate, as eye care is critical to health care across the board.
The OAO is asking patients to make their concerns known to their local Member of Provincial Parliament.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Health on Sept. 17, the government has made “every effort” to lay the foundation for a “long-term relationship” with the OAO.
In October the ministry is paying Ontario optometrists $39-million as part of their October payments, regardless of whether there is an agreement in place.
The statement also said the College of Optometrists of Ontario – the regulatory body – has made it clear that if an individual optometrist decides to withhold care from their patients they are “expected to take steps to ensure patients can continue to receive appropriate care.”
Salaba said the $39-million so-called back payment equates to about $1 for each retroactive eye exam carried out in the past.
Meanwhile, the Schwabs wait. However, Matthew said he’s not letting the issue go, saying he believes the withdrawal of OHIP service is a human rights violation. He and his mother are both disabled.
The younger Schwab said he’s been told his mother can go to a hospital emergency room and see an ophthalmologist. The Chatham-Kent Health Alliance does offer that service.
Matthew has offered to pay for eye exams out of pocket, but’s not allowed in Ontario for people receiving disability benefits.
Both Matthew and Mary say they are not alone, explaining they know quite a few people in the same boat.
“All of Wallaceburg is screaming,” he added, noting the office of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton has been fielding a lot of calls from him regarding the matter.