Nfld. & Labrador

It's 'frustrating' to be only province without child vision coverage, says N.L. optometrist

N.L. needs to catch up to the rest of the country and provide at least eye examinations to children, says an optometrist in Corner Brook.

All other provinces provide either eye exams or comprehensive vision program

Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province to not cover children's eye examinations. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Children in Newfoundland and Labrador deserve to have eye examination coverage before they reach school age, says an optometrist who is frustrated by the provincial government's lack of action.

The province is the only one in Canada that does not cover some form of vision care for children, beyond a public health screening that checks preschoolers for select eye issues.

"It's disappointing, and it's also very frustrating. This is not a new issue," said Deidre MacDonnell, an optometrist in Corner Brook and past executive in the provincial optometrist association.

MacDonnell said that screening falls far short of a complete eye examination, and parents or caregivers don't often realize the difference.

"The lack of coverage also means there's a lack of recognition by the government on the importance of children receiving routine eye care. And that's made it very difficult to educate the public on the issue," she said.

Health Minister John Haggie says he is in talks with the province's optometrists about increasing child vision coverage. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Screening works: minister

Health Minister John Haggie defended the screening system, which he said examines 94 per cent of preschool-aged children in the province, and refers one in five of them to an optometrist or ophthalmologist for further examination.

He said he recently spoke to the province's optometrist association to try to determine if there are more children falling through the cracks of that screening process.

"This has been the discussion, trying to figure out if there is a problem, or a flaw in the system we have," he told CBC Radio's Central Morning Show.

"If there is a problem with the system that we have, we're quite open to remedying that. It's just that we need some information to guide our decision."

Early intervention 

MacDonnell recommends children have their first eye examination betweens the age of six to nine months, with another between two to five years of age, and then yearly throughout their school years.

"Routine eye care for children is very important, because childhood vision problems are not uncommon, and they don't often have any obvious signs or symptoms," she said.

Eye examinations and prescription glasses can be a financial strain for parents without private benefits. (CBC)

MacDonnell said children's near vision is particularly of concern, given that 80 per cent of classroom learning is visual. She said she often sees children well into elementary school having trouble reading, who, upon having eye examinations and receiving glasses, begin to improve.

"It's heartbreaking," she said.

"That child is now put in the position where they have to play catch up, and that's not fair. That's not fair to the child, that's not fair to the parents, and that's not fair to the teachers."

'Not a perfect system'

Tallying up the cost of all those recommended eye examinations can be daunting. Exams average about $80, and MacDonnell called that figure an "obstacle." 

"That's a lot of money for a lot of families, especially if those families have more than one child requiring an eye exam," she said.

Add in the cost of prescription glasses, and vision care becomes even harder for families to consider. New Brunswick covers free eye exams and glasses for four-year-olds, while Ontario covers an annual eye exam for anyone under 19.

It's not a perfect system.- John Haggie

MacDonnell said Newfoundland and Labrador should provide something along those lines.

"It's about time that this changed," she said.

Haggie said between 70 to 80 per cent of children have vision coverage under their parents' benefits, and the province does provide some assistance to families on social support.

"It's not a perfect system," he said, admitting there are families who can't access either of those areas of financial help.

Haggie promised "more is coming" as the government tries to figure out how to offer more child vision care, without shouldering expenses that are currently being borne by private insurers, and without increasing the strain on provincial coffers.

"We just need to be conscious of our rather precarious fiscal situation," he said.

With files from The Corner Brook Morning Show and The Central Morning Show

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador