Canada urgently needs a comprehensive national vision-health plan to cope with expected increases in the cost of vision loss, the CNIB and eye doctors said in a report Tuesday.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society estimated the total financial cost of vision loss in Canada at $15.8 billion per year.

The price tag includes $8.6 billion in direct health-related costs and $7.2 billion in indirect costs, including lost productivity and earnings, care and rehabilitation and assistance devices.

The direct health-care costs are higher than those for treating cancer and heart disease, according to the report.

The two groups hired an Australian economic consulting firm, Access Economics, to analyze data from Canadian health agencies and Statistics Canada for the report.

Federal and provincial governments bear 55 per cent of the costs of vision loss, and Canadians with vision loss bear personal costs totalling an estimated $3.5 billion annually, the groups said.

The report's authors called on the federal government to create a plan to reduce the financial and human costs of vision loss, including:

  • Cost-effective preventive measures.
  • Improved access to proven treatments.
  • Employment accommodation, such as assistance devices. 
  • Rehabilitation services for people affected by vision loss.

The Canadian government made a commitment to the World Health Organization in 2003 to create to develop a national vision plan by 2005 and to begin implementing it by 2007, but to date, only interim measures have been taken, said John Rafferty, CNIB's president and CEO.

Tools for independence, productivity

As part of the national vision plan, CNIB wants the federal government specifically to:

  • Lower vision-loss rates, using a strategy similar to the one used to encourage Canadians to quit smoking.
  • Expand the health-care Wait Time Initiative to include treatment for all eye conditions, not just cataracts.
  • Increase funding for a nationwide employment program to help working-age people with vision loss obtain good jobs.

Every year, more than 45,000 Canadians lose their vision, Rafferty said. It amounts to one person losing their vision every 12 minutes. 

Given the demographic shift of an aging population, the costs will "spiral upwards and overburden our health-care system unless we take action now," added Dr. Alan Cruess, a professor of ophthalmology at Dalhousie University.

Cruess called vision loss connected to diabetes, untreated cataracts and glaucoma an epidemic that is mostly preventable through better public awareness and access to treatment.

The lack of a national plan means regional disadvantages crop up, Cruess said. For example, indigenous Canadians, who have elevated rates of Type 2 diabetes that carries a high risk of vision loss, are often poorly served by the health-care system, he noted. 

At a news conference in Toronto, Alida Miletic said she found out she had abnormal eye pressure when she was growing up. But Miletic said she didn't give her eyesight much thought until five years ago, when she started noticing halos around lights while driving.

After eyedrops and surgery, her career as a fashion designer came to an end.

Now 45, Miletic sees only a blur in front of her as she describes life with glaucoma.

"I rely on family, my friends, and things like CPP, [Canada Pension Plan] which I find extremely embarrassing and disheartening."

With files from The Canadian Press