Proposed eye surgery centre in Corner Brook rejected by province

An opthamologist in western Newfoundland says he's closing his practice after the provincial government rejected his proposal to build an eye surgery facility.

Justin French says he will now leave province to look for work in B.C.

An eye surgery centre proposed by Dr. Justin French, to focus primarily on cataracts, has been rejected by Newfoundland and Labrador's health department. (CBC)

An eye doctor in western Newfoundland says he's closing his practice and looking for work elsewhere after the provincial government rejected his proposal to build a special eye surgery facility.

Ophthalmologist Justin French said he had hoped to build a new centre in the Corner Brook area to focus on cataract surgeries.

While the clinic would be privately owned, the cataract surgeries would been covered under MCP, the provincial medical care plan, and French said he wouldn't be charging patients any extra.

French said some of his patients in western Newfoundland wait 200 days for cataract surgery. (Buhler Eye Care Centre at Misericordia Health Centre/YouTube)

French said his plan for the clinic would have eliminated the wait list for hospital cataract surgeries in western Newfoundland and saved taxpayers money. Right now he said he has patients waiting more than 200 days to get the operation, which is months longer than national standards.

"We're not asking for any funding from government. I would be building this facility and funding it myself. And the actual cost per case of delivering cataract surgery in this private facility is less than what it is in a hospital settting."

No go for facility

French had been in talks with the province for nearly two years for what he calls a "centre of ophthalmologic excellence." But on Monday, he was called by the minister of health, who told him government had decided not to approve his plan.

He told the Corner Brook Morning Show that John Haggie cited concerns about quantifying surgery wait times, and had questions about how the public would perceive taking procedures from a unionized hospital setting and moving them to a private clinic.

Health Minister John Haggie said there wasn't sufficient proof that building the western Newfoundland eye surgery clinic would save government money or reduce wait times. (CBC)

Haggie told CBC News that the clinic was not in the best interest of the province as there wasn't enough evidence it would save money or reduce wait times.

"We have not been able to show clearly that there would be any significant cost savings to government. In actual fact, there would likely be an increase in expenditures," he said.

"And wait times as reported by him to the RHA [regional health authority], at least up until Christmas, were in line with national standards."

French, meanwhile, said 800 patients are currently waiting to see him for consultations and it could take two years to treat them all.

Not privatization

With regard to the privatization worries, French argued that taking a unionized job or two from the hospital in the interest of saving taxpayers millions of dollars is worthwhile. He said a nurse employed by his facility could be a member of a public service union. 

"It's not privatization in any way. My proposal is actually completely consistent with the Canada Health Act," he said,

"It's not an example of two-tiered medicine or privatization. There's no additional charges to the patient whatsoever, anything different than having their surgery in a hospital setting."

French said his clinic would have been built by private funds, with surgeries covered by MCP. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

French said his plan now is to travel to British Columbia to explore other opportunities, with the intention of coming back to Corner Brook over the summer to make sure his patients are taken care of.

He encouraged people to contact their MHAs to push to have government change its mind, saying his proposed clinic would also be a much-needed economic shot in the arm for western Newfoundland.

"It would have been a big draw to recruit other ophthalmologists to the west coast," he said.

"Unfortunately in the absence of this facility and the absence of a contingency plan to improve eye care here on the west coast, it's going to be impossible for me to carry on at the pace that I am."

With files from Corner Brook Morning Show and Ryan Cooke