More Ontario JK students will get eye exams, free glasses

TheStar.com – news/Ontario/parentcentral.ca/parent/familyhealth
June 20, 2011.   Rob Ferguson

More kids will be eligible for free eyeglasses starting in September as Premier Dalton McGuinty expands a program at the same time he’ll officially hit the campaign trail for the Oct. 6 election.

In partnership with optometrists and makers of eyeglasses, a program that waives about $300 in fees to get glasses on junior kindergarten pupils needing them will expand to another 14 school boards yet to be announced.

“It’s a lot harder to learn if kids can’t see well,” McGuinty said Monday at P.L. Robertson elementary school in Milton, adding he hopes to have the program that started in 2009 rolled out province-wide by 2015.

The problem is that although eye exams by optometrists are covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan for children 19 and under, about 80 per cent of kids starting school have never had their eyes tested — and statistics suggest up to one-quarter of them will have vision problems that can be corrected, the premier said.

New Democrat health critic France Gélinas (Nickel Belt) said she finds the timing of the program “just a little bit suspicious” given the Oct. 6 vote in which McGuinty faces a tough battle to win a third term in office.

Gélinas is concerned the program — largely funded by the private-sector sponsors — ignores older school children such as Grade 4 or 5 pupils whose parents may not be able to afford eyeglasses.

The program has been operating on a smaller scale for two years in Hamilton and later expanded to school boards in Halton, Dufferin-Peel and Windsor Essex last fall. It now reaches about 15 per cent of 4-year-olds enrolled in Ontario schools.

Aside from the eye exams, which OHIP covers at $42.50 each, it will cost taxpayers about $200,000 a year to run the program with optometrists and three companies — including Johnson and Johnson Vision Care providing free glasses — picking up the rest of the $5 million tab.

The Ontario Association of Optometrists said it’s a “huge” problem that too many kids don’t get their eyes tested at an early age, because some weaknesses like lack of depth perception can be fixed if caught early.

“We want to level the playing field for all kids,” said association spokesman Dr. Sheldon Salaba.

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