Wyong optometrist Carl Emerton with Liberal MP for the electorate of Dobell, Karen McNamara, and the local Heat Map
By Patrick Hutchens
Ian Liley: ‘If you’re going to get your message across, it has to be a united front’
Carl Emerton and Ian Liley are among the members of Optometry Australia who have taken up the challenge to campaign for fairer access to Medicare-funded optometry.
Across the country, optometrists have written to Members of Parliament and have met with them in private meetings to increase awareness of how the recent cut to the optometric rebate and other changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule will impact patient access to eye care.
Carl Emerton, an optometrist based in Wyong, on the NSW Central Coast, met with the local Liberal MP for the electorate of Dobell, Karen McNamara.
Mr Emerton informed her about how the five per cent cut to the optometric rebate and the changes in eligibility for eye tests covered by Medicare were immediately impacting his practice.
‘She knew about the changes but hadn’t realised the impact that it was going to have on optometrists and patients,’ he said.
Mr Emerton calculates that the changes will cost his practice upwards of $30,000 this year. As a result, he has had to employ one fewer staff member.
‘The money that I’m losing from the fell swoop of Medicare changes has meant that her wages have gone,’ he said.
‘If I was in an affluent area I could start charging extra but it’s difficult for me because a significant proportion of my patients are pensioners,’ he said.
Mr Emerton conveyed to Ms McNamara that he had spoken with his patients and many pensioners had told him they would wait until they were next eligible for an eye examination before returning to him.
‘I explained to her that there is going to be an ongoing cost to government because people are not going to have their diabetes checked and their glaucoma will be going undiscovered. In the future there will be a greater cost to government,’ he said.
To illustrate to Ms McNamara the high need for eye-care services in his electorate of Dobell, Mr Emerton used screenshots from the Optometry Australia Heat Maps, which were developed in partnership with the Australian National University.
The tool was useful in illustrating the overall health and economic status of people in his area. While there is an adequate supply of optometrists practising on the Central Coast, there is also a very high need for their services because of the large number of people living there who are retired or have low incomes.
Mr Emerton also presented a number of fundus image posters he designed that show the types of diseases that could worsen as a result of the cut to the Medicare rebate to optometry and the changes in eligibility for Medicare-supported eye tests.
‘I made up a poster that demonstrated macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and retinal detachments to ram home that this was the sort of stuff that would get missed or would be neglected because people won’t have the money to pay to get checked,’ he said.
Ms McNamara indicated to Mr Emerton that she would take the Heat Map screenshots and the notes that Mr Emerton had prepared for her and meet with the Minister for Health in May.
Mr Emerton encourages members who are interested in taking part in the Eye Care for All campaign to meet with their local Member of Parliament.
‘Politicians are receptive. It’s not like we’ve got a gripe that can’t be fixed; it’s about increasing awareness for everyone about eye care and getting the message out there,’ he said.
Ian Liley, an optometrist from Ulverstone on the north-west coast of Tasmania, has met informally with his local Liberal MP, Brett Whiteley, on numerous occasions.
Mr Liley has stopped bulk-billing all of his patients, apart from pensioners and concession card holders.
He finds that the time he is spending with his patients who are pensioners is disproportionate to his remuneration through the scheduled fee.
‘I’ve tried to impress on Brett that I’m finding myself, particularly with pensioners, instilling scheduled drugs in their eyes and spending a huge amount of time doing say, cataract work-ups and referrals, but then ultimately you get paid $31.00,’ he said.
As well as encouraging members to take part in the Eye Care for All campaign, Mr Liley, who is a member of the Liberal Party, suggests members consider joining a political party.
‘There are also plenty of party fundraisers where you don’t necessarily have to be a member but you can go along,’ he said.
‘If you’re going to get your message across, it has to be a united front. One voice among a maelstrom of media stories will not get the message across. It’s vitally important that everyone becomes interested,’ he said.
Members who are interested in contacting their local Member of Parliament about fairer and smarter access to eye care are invited to visit the Optometry Australia website.