Toronto

NDP, Tories slam the Wynne government for not funding sight-saving surgery

Opposition parties blasted the Wynne government Wednesday, saying the Liberals have spent five years studying whether to fund sight-saving surgery — and still don't have an answer.

Ontario has spent 5 years studying whether it should pay for corneal cross-linking procedure

Aidan Wellsman is still recovering from surgery to prevent blindness from a degenerative eye disease. OHIP did not cover the cost of the procedures. (CBC)

Opposition parties blasted the Wynne government Wednesday, saying the Liberals have spent five years studying whether to fund sight-saving surgery — and still don't have an answer. 

The Progressive Conservative and New Democratic health critics called on the premier to cover the surgery, citing a CBC Toronto report about a 16-year-old boy whose parents had to pay for the procedure themselves. 

Aidan Wellsman's sight has deteriorated rapidly in the last year; he couldn't read lecture notes and his grades began slipping. Tests showed that he has keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease that causes the cornea to thin and change shape.

The condition can lead to blindness if left untreated.

If the Toronto teen were to go blind, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan would pay for corneal transplant surgery — but it does not cover a preventative operation called corneal cross-linking, which strengthens the weakened eye tissue.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says Ontario should cover CXL surgery. (CBC)

'Pretty backwards'

"It's pretty heartbreaking to have a family make that kind of decision," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters after question period Wednesday. "Imagine having a government tell you that they're not going to cover the surgery that your son needs until he goes completely blind, and then they'll cover the surgery.

"It seems pretty backwards to me."

Six other provincial and territorial health-care insurance programs pay for cross-corneal linking, also known as CXL, including Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick. 

Aidan Wellsman's parents wrote to Premier Kathleen Wynne urging Ontario to cover CXL surgery. (CBC)

PC health critic Jeff Yurek said it's time for Ontario to do the same. 

"Other provinces have studied the scientific evidence backing this procedure and are covering it," he told the Legislature Wednesday. "My heart goes out to the family, to this young man."

Pilot project

The Wellsman family decided to go ahead last week with CXL and another procedure recommended by Aidan's ophthalmologist to restore his failing eyesight. It cost the family $10,000 through a private laser eye clinic. 

There is a loophole, however, for some Toronto residents. Several hundred patients had their CXL surgery paid for by the province as part of three-year pilot project, which began in 2013. 

The study emerged after the province's health technology advisory committee began studying whether OHIP should fund the surgery in 2011. It couldn't make a decision and recommended the government commission the study. 

The provincial ombudsman also received four complaints that year from those whose doctors recommended CXL surgery. The procedure would cost an average of $4,000, according to the ombudsman's 2013 investigation into the complaints.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins says he'll make the results of the CXL study public. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Health Minister Eric Hoskins told reporters Wednesday that he expects to review the pilot project's recommendations on the success of CXL treatment "very shortly" — but he didn't specify whether that meant weeks or months.

The province initially spent $225,000 on the Kensington Eye Institute study, which wrapped in March, before investing another $1 million this year. The second round of funding covered surgery for about 600 patients, Hoskins said Wednesday.

Hoskins promised to make the study's findings public once he receives them. 

"I believe that we're very close to receiving that report," he said. "That evaluation and report is important for us to be able to make a proper clinical decision based on science and evidence."

With files from CBC's Mike Crawley

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