As the arrival of the next Federal Budget looms, Optometry Australia is calling on the government to reverse the funding cuts made under Abbott’s 2015 Budget.
As the national professional body for optometrists, Optometry Australia has slammed the $50 million cut to Medicare cover for optometry patients, calling it a short-sighted move. After all, 75-80% of vision loss is preventable or treatable, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The latest statistics from Medicare show they were right.
The changes have meant many Australians waited longer for their routine eye examinations, because the rebate provided by Medicare for preventative care was reduced from 1 January 2015. Under the reduced rebate, patients under 65 years old are now only able to access a free Medicare-subsidised eye examination every 3 years, compared to every 2 years previously.
Budget cuts hurt old and young alike
Because of the 2015 cuts, it is reported that 1 in 10 patients aged between 45 and 64 missed out on an eye examination last year.
This is a problem because this middle age bracket is when deteriorating vision problems are often first detected. A significant proportion of all visual impairment is preventable, or treatable if detected early – but if not detected it costs the patient and the taxpayer a great deal.
Optometry Australia reported that optometrists were also unable to see as many younger patients aged 25-45 years old because of the cuts.
The problem here is that studies show people in this age bracket experience frequent episodes of eye irritation and headaches from the amount of screen time involved in daily work. Screen breaks and home remedies provide only temporary relief before it’s time to get tinted “screen glasses” – but you can’t take this route without a script from the optometrist.
How is Australia’s eye health going?
Optometry Australia cites the following alarming statistics about the current state of Australia’s eye health:
- Over 12 million Australian experience eye health and vision problems.
- Of the Aussies who do get an eye exam, 1 in 7 have undetected, asymptomatic eye disease, risking permanent blindness or vision loss.
- Vision problems cost the Australian economy more than $16 billion each year.
- More than 1 in 2 Aussies don’t get their eyes tested, even if their GP recommends it.
What does it cost?
A reported 80% of all visual impairment is preventable, or treatable if detected early. For this reason, Access Economics estimates a return of $5 for every $1 invested in preventing avoidable vision loss.
Ironically, reducing the rebate for preventative care will increase the cost to the government in the form of public eye treatments under Medicare.
Kate Gifford, President of Optometry Australia, says the only ones most impacted by reduced rebates and frozen indexation of rebates are the most disadvantaged Australians.
“Impacts are already being felt, particularly in disadvantaged and low income communities.”
In these communities, patients can’t afford out-of-pocket expenses but the optometrists can’t support a business using bulk-billing alone when practice costs are rising.
“The Government’s decisions will likely see some communities losing ready access to eye care,” says Gifford.
“Given the enormous cost of vision disorders to the Australian economy, it seems extraordinary that the Federal Government doesn’t seek to reinvest in patient rebates for optometry services in order to improve the eye health of Australians now and in the future.”
A blueprint for the 2016 Budget
Optometry Australia has outlined the following measures for the 2016 Budget, in an effort to bring Australia’s eye crisis back under control:
- Reintroduce Medicare rebates for comprehensive eye exams every 2 years for Australians aged 40-65 years, a particularly vulnerable demographic for eye disease and vision loss.
- Introduce bulk-billing incentive for optometry services, rewarding optometrists for seeing patients with a Commonwealth Concession Card and children under 16 years old.
President Gifford says these measures are ready and affordable, and would give optometry providers the same recognition as GPs and radiologists.
Forget the Budget – get your own eye cover
You can make sure you’re covered for whatever eye issues arise, with extras cover health insurance. This will typically cover a percentage or dollar limit payment towards needs including:
- Annual eye examination
- Glasses frames
- Glasses lenses
- UV tinting
Getting extras cover can be a good way to make sure you remember to go to the optometrist more often. After all, you’ll want to make sure you get your money’s worth for the year. To find an optometrist near you, or to read Optometry Australia’s submissions to the Budget consultations, visit www.optometry.org.au