Ontario’s optometrists have held patients hostage for too long. It’s time to work out a deal

Ontario’s optometrists have held patients hostage for too long. It’s time to work out a deal

Ontario’s optometrists have kept their optometrists waiting for too long. It’s time to work out a deal that gets patients back on track.

Every fall, I watch optometrists work their magic on their patients. They offer world-class treatment to more than 200,000 Ontario patients who rely on the profession. If you’ve ever gone to the optometrist for a reading, you know how important their work is to our province.

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Then, every autumn, Ontario optometrists tell their patients they have not yet received their annual contract. These letters usually state optometrists will continue to provide patients with care, but due to “government issues” optometrists need to take a few days to wait for approval to continue working with patients.

The optometrists’ union and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care have not yet negotiated a new contract for the year 2016-2017. This lack of contract makes sense if optometrists had new technology, changed the nature of their practice or higher staff levels. But optometrists are still practising the same way they did 13 years ago. Every fall, patients think they might have to wait longer than usual for their optometrist to see them.

Recently, optometrists offered their union a deal to continue to work for four years. This proposal does not include increases in salary. It does, however, include a pledge that optometrists will be fully staffed with staff members for working weekends and nights, and that optometrists will be fully staffed with full-time and part-time staff for holidays.

Does the optometrist I’m seeing do all that? No.

There are some optometrists who do, as the optometrists union seems to have cynically assumed. But a considerable number of optometrists don’t.

Optometrists’ pay has remained stagnant for the past 13 years, leaving optometrists to worry about their retirement plans.

Optometrists are often reluctant to turn down a pay increase in exchange for new staff. But optometrists who did choose to reject an increase in salary would have ended up leaving for a better pay deal or to open their own practice. This has been the Optometrists’ Union’s history.

The contract cost for the optometrists is only a drop in the bucket of health care. Optometrists provide excellent, ongoing care for patients, some of which is never covered by medical plans. These are optometrists who love their work – but when the optometrists union puts their own interest above the interests of patients, what can optometrists do?

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In the last year, Ontario hospital ombudsman Dennis Craig investigated the optometrists’ union. In October, 2016, Mr. Craig wrote to Premier Kathleen Wynne, informing her that the optometrists’ union had agreed to waive a law protecting optometrists’ right to contact optometrists to discuss contract issues.

The optometrists’ union then claimed, and continues to claim, that the optometrists’ right to notify other optometrists about the contracts must be waived to reach a wage deal. The optometrists’ union’s own constitution makes it clear that optometrists have the right to make contract changes without the optometrists’ union’s consent.

Despite this, the optometrists’ union continues to claim this right.

If Mr. Craig did not see fit to confront the optometrists’ union, perhaps the optometrists themselves should. I have asked the optometrists’ union for a meeting to discuss how they treat their patients. I would be happy to share my experiences as a patient who trusts optometrists.

At this rate, optometrists will probably be holding Ontarians hostage for another 13 years. The optometrists should work out a contract that allows optometrists to continue to provide excellent, ongoing, primary-care-style care for patients while allowing them to hire staff members and invest in education to increase the number of optometrists in their offices. Optometrists are an essential part of the health-care system. But their relationship with the government is suffering. There must be a swift resolution of this long-standing dispute.

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