The New Brunswick government will provide free eye exams and corrective glasses to all four-year-olds who are not covered by a public or private health insurance program, starting April 1.

Premier Brian Gallant announced his government's decision to expand the Healthy Smiles, Clear Vision program on Wednesday, following through on a 2014 election pledge.

"By making this program universal, we will ensure that all four-year-olds have access to eye exams and corrective glasses prior to starting school," Gallant said in a statement.

'By helping to ensure that the children of New Brunswick have eye examinations before starting school, our province is giving them a solid foundation to learn.' - Amy Robinson, N.B. Association of Optometrists

The New Brunswick Association of Optometrists recommends all children have at least one eye examination before they start school so that any visual issues — developmental or otherwise — can be detected and treated.

Some vision problems that are not diagnosed by the age of seven can cause irreversible damage and permanent vision loss, according to the association.

Children with undiagnosed vision problems may also be labelled as having a learning disability and end up in a modified school curriculum, or diagnosed with behavioural problems because they have difficulty concentrating in class.

"By helping to ensure that the children of New Brunswick have eye examinations before starting school, our province is giving them a solid foundation to learn," association president Amy Robinson said in the government-issued news release on Wednesday.

Only 14% get exam before school

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The New Brunswick Association of Optometrists believes the cost of eye examinations might be part of the reason so few children are tested before they start school.

The association has been lobbying Gallant to follow through on his 2014 election campaign promise to provide a funded comprehensive eye examination to four-year-olds, including subsidizing glasses for those found to have vision problems.

It says 80 per cent of learning is visual, and statistics show about 23 per cent of children have a vision problem that is significant enough to impact learning, such as blurred vision or eyestrain.

But children don't always realize they're having difficulty seeing because they have no standard for comparison, and parents can mistakenly believe they would know if their child had a vision problem.

"Unfortunately, only 14 per cent of Canadian children have had a comprehensive eye examination before starting school and only 31 per cent of children aged six to 16 have ever had an eye examination," the group said in a statement earlier this week, noting the costs may be prohibitive in some cases.

Tools to succeed

Under the expanded program, New Brunswick will also pay the deductible for those with existing health insurance.

"Your government wants to ensure that New Brunswick children are given each and every opportunity to excel as early as possible," said Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman.

Expanding the program will give more New Brunswick children "the tools they need to succeed and reach their full potential," he said.

On Oct. 25, Ross Wetmore, the MLA for Gagetown-Petitcodiac, presented a motion in the legislature for children to have a mandatory government-funded eye examination funded before starting school. The motion was seconded by Bill Oliver, the MLA for Kings Centre.