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N.L. Liberals take closer look at eye care

Health Minister John Haggie addressed a Rotary gathering at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland on Thursday, before responding to questions on both a proposed ophthalmology clinic in Western Newfoundland and cataract surgeries being questioned by the public.
Health Minister John Haggie addressed a Rotary gathering at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland on Thursday, before responding to questions on both a proposed ophthalmology clinic in Western Newfoundland and cataract surgeries being questioned by the public. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Health minister not saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just yet to western Newfoundland eye clinic proposal

Health Minister John Haggie says a meeting between provincial politicians and Dr. Justin French on Wednesday in St. John’s was long, but useful.

French made headlines in his initial response to the rejection of his proposal to finance construction of a new surgical centre for ophthalmology in Corner Brook.

Coming out of the more recent meeting with the government — including Haggie, Premier Dwight Ball and a collection of members of the House of Assembly — French told The Western Star he felt the clinic was still possible.

When asked Thursday about the same meeting, Haggie didn’t reject French’s concept outright, and said the meeting was useful.

He did not say the proposal would ultimately be accepted.

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“I think we needed to explain why the proposal hadn’t worked. … We have some disagreement on costings and we’re going to look at getting some independent advice on what the costings really should look like,” he said, speaking to reporters following a speech to the Rotary Club of St. John’s at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland.

Asked if the meeting could be summed up as an effort to work together, to find a way to make French’s proposal work, the minister said it’s about exploring options and he doesn’t want to pre-judge what would come out of that.

He said a concern at the heart of the public exchange, something registered by the government, is the overall access to ophthalmology services in western Newfoundland and related wait times.

“The other piece of that was really more of a policy piece — the issue of moving publicly funded services out of a hospital is something that was covered in actual fact in the (memorandum of agreement) with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association,” he said, adding the Canada Health Act factors in, and a cross-country review.

The meeting in St. John’s was really a “re-boot” of communications and has provided some things for the government to explore, he said.

He said, as an example relating to wait times, Western Health is — on paper — meeting or exceeding national benchmarks for eye surgery. “Now, if that’s not the case, we need to find out why that information was inaccurate and where the source of the problem is,” he said.

In speaking with reporters, the minister also updated the province’s inquiries into complaints relating to cataract surgeries, including ongoing follow-up to nearly 600 calls made to a related 1-800 hotline set up in early February.

About 400 calls have received follow-up to date, he said, with another 47 people — in addition to the initial eight tied to pre-hotline complaints — being recorded. He said staff are working to gather more information about each case, including if there was money taken for surgeries covered under public health insurance (the Medical Care Plan — MCP) and if money changed hands with the suggestion payments could help a patient avoid wait times.

There is also clarification being sought for what was communicated to each patient in terms of what the procedure was that they were agreeing to.

“We just need to clarify what happened (in each case), because we really don’t know,” he said, adding the situation has cast a cloud over clinicians and he’s eager to address that.

Haggie’s Rotary speech broadly addressed changes in the health care system and keeping costs in check while meeting demand for services.

“Certainly there are challenges, but there are some successes as well,” he said, mentioning as examples the Therapy Assistance Online (e-Health) option and the “Doorways” walk-in counselling pilot program for mental health, under consideration for expansion.

What might seem like a clear solution to a challenge today could very well end up costing that much more in just two or three years, he said, if the government is not careful before committing to changes.

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