First Nations, Inuit and Métis patients, plus seniors, in the Northwest Territories are now eligible to have their progressive lenses covered by the federal and territorial governments.

Health Minister Glen Abernethy made the surprise announcement in the legislative assembly Tuesday.

"This seems like as good a place as any to let you know," he said.

"I've asked [my] department to draft up a letter to the MLAs letting them know that progressive lenses are now covered and will be covered."

"Whoo!" he added, raising both of his thumbs.

Reimbursed up to $100

The change applies to two groups covered under two different systems. 

Coverage for First Nations and Inuit patients who are not insured elsewhere comes from Health Canada's Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program, which is administered by the territorial government.

The N.W.T.'s own Supplementary Health Benefits system, which provides the same coverage as the NIHB plan, covers people aged 60 and over plus Métis residents who are not covered by NIHB or the N.W.T.'s program for seniors.  ​

Patients will now be reimbursed up to a maximum of $100. They'll have to pay the remaining difference between the cost of bifocal and progressive lenses.

Progressive lenses are often required by older adults — a segment of the N.W.T.'s population that is expected to grow significantly in the years to come.  

A sudden development

Tuesday's announcement caught MLAs by surprise.

"I'm going to let the minister personally deliver that good news to a couple of constituents who have already shelled out of their own pockets for progressive lenses," said Kevin O'Reilly, the MLA for Yellowknife's Frame Lake riding.

Abernethy says Health Canada's decision to cover the lenses came as a surprise to him too. 

Yellowknife Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly

While welcoming the news, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly said he knows of constituents 'who have already shelled out of their own pockets for progressive lenses.' (CBC News )

In November, Abernethy told MLAs the N.W.T. was still advocating for the change.

"We intend to raise this as an issue and we hope that they would modify their [program] to include things like progressive lenses so that we can ensure that our residents, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, young, old, seniors, are getting the lenses they need," he said at the time.

But on Tuesday, Abernethy said he was suddenly informed by Health Canada in late January that progressive lenses would now be covered under NIHB.

"Apparently in December as I was writing letters to MLAs and others saying, you know, progressive lenses aren't covered, the federal government was in the process of changing their [program] to cover progressive lenses," he said.

He went on to criticize the federal government.

"We just keep trying to encourage them to make reasonable choices and to apply common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is so rare, it might as well be a superpower."