Ophthalmologist 'really shocked' by minister's suggestion that eye doctors are breaking law

An ophthalmology group is defending its members after John Haggie said some of them may have engaged in illegal activities.

Dr. Ken Roberts says there is a lot of confusion about what services ophthalmologists provide

Cataract surgery is covered by Newfoundland and Labrador's Medical Care Plan. (CBC)

An ophthalmology group is defending its members after Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister said some eye surgeons may have engaged in illegal activities.

Last week, John Haggie said he has been receiving reports that at least one eye doctor is asking patients to pay out-of-pocket for cataract surgery, a procedure that is covered by MCP.

"Individuals who've paid up to $4,000 per eye for what is an insured service, and that's a clear contravention of both the Canada Health Act and our own provincial legislation," he said.

"There are potential criminal activities here."

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie speaks with CBC News on Tuesday. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

A lot of confusion

The chair of the Atlantic province's ophthalmological society is questioning what Haggie said.

"I was really shocked by that statement and I think it just made me realize that there is a lot of confusion about cataract surgery and the services that the ophthalmologists provide," said Dr. Ken Roberts.

Roberts doesn't believe patients have paid out of pocket for cataract surgery. He says it's more likely that they paid for services that aren't covered by MCP — such as refractive lens exchange — to improve their eyesight.

"I would argue that anyone who paid that much money was having a refractive procedure, and that's a non-insured procedure," said Roberts.

"What the minister was talking about was a private centre that's providing refractive lens exchanges for people who are having the surgery primarily to get rid of their need for glasses."

So one of the questions the health department  is going to have to try to answer with its investigations is, did patients pay for cataract surgery or did they elect to get refractive lens replacement, which isn't covered by MCP?

Proposed western Newfoundland eye centre

Roberts also spoke about Dr. Justin French's proposal to build a private eye treatment centre in Corner Brook, which would be privately administered but still perform publicly funded services, such as cataract surgery.
Dr. Justin French says he wants to continue working in Newfoundland, but says he may leave if his proposed eye clinic is rejected by the province. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Early last week, health officials said the province had rejected that proposal, saying it doesn't see any benefit to approving. They fear it might actually cost more money than it saves.

Roberts says the province is making a mistake. He said public-private eye clinics are already operating in many parts of Canada, and added the clinics improve care for people who need eye surgery by reducing pressure on publicly funded facilities and reducing wait times.

"The advantage to the patient is that the government is making efforts to reduce the wait times to get them their surgery in a timely manner," said Roberts.

Late last week, the province appeared to be reconsidering its position. Dr. Justin French is expected to meet with the health minister and Premier Dwight Ball on Wednesday to discuss his proposal.