HANSARD: Jenny speaks on the National Strategy for Eye Care Act
National Strategy for Eye Care Act
Private Members' Business
April 28th, 2023 / 2 p.m.
Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
Private Members' Business
April 28th, 2023 / 2 p.m.
Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
Madam Speaker, before I begin my speech on the bill today, I want to take a moment to recognize today as the National Day of Mourning, to honour every worker who goes to work, and to say very clearly that they deserve to return home safely at the end of their workday. I would also like to take a moment to remember those who have been injured or lost their lives, and to commit ourselves to fighting for a safe work environment for all workers.
I am very pleased to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-284, an act to establish a national strategy for eye care. I would like to thank the member for Humber River—Black Creek for introducing this important bill with respect to eye health for all Canadians. New Democrats support this bill and the important steps it would take to improve access to eye care for all Canadians.
This legislation would set out a national strategy to support the prevention and treatment of eye disease to ensure better health outcomes for Canadians. It states the following:
(2) The national strategy must describe the various forms of eye disease and include measures to
(a) identify the training, education and guidance needs of health care practitioners and other professionals related to the prevention and treatment of eye disease, including clinical practice guidelines;
(b) promote research and improve data collection on eye disease prevention and treatment;
(c) promote information and knowledge sharing between the federal and provincial governments in relation to eye disease prevention and treatment; and
(d) ensure that Health Canada is able to rapidly consider new applications for treatments and devices used for macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.
This legislation also designates the month of February as age-related macular degeneration month.
Organizations including Fighting Blindness Canada, the Canadian Council of the Blind, the CNIB, Diabetes Canada, the Canadian Association of Optometrists, the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, and the Canadian Association of Retired Persons have advocated for a national eye care strategy for many years, and it is long past time for action on this issue.
Sadly, eye health has been underfunded and deprioritized in Canada for far too long. As a result, millions of Canadians are being put at unnecessary risk of vision loss because they lack access to eye care. Currently, access to eye care varies widely from province to province, resulting in variable health outcomes and exacerbating inequalities in our health care system. As well, 39% of Canadians do not have access to vision health benefits. This is wrong. Over eight million Canadians are living with an eye condition that puts them at significant risk of blindness. An estimated 1.2 million Canadians are currently living with vision loss, with many facing a lack of investment in services and supports that impacts their ability to live life to its fullest. This number is expected to grow to two million by 2050. That is staggering.
Routine eye exams play a crucial role in the prevention of vision loss. If certain eye diseases are diagnosed early enough, they can be effectively managed before expensive and sometimes invasive measures are required. If diagnosed early, and if people have access to treatment, vision loss can be prevented in 75% of cases. Further, 70% of existing vision impairment in Canada is estimated to be correctable with prescription glasses. A sizable proportion of correctable vision impairment is related to the barriers to accessing vision care in Canada.
Most guidelines recommend having an eye exam once a year for people aged six to 18, or 65 years and older, as well as for those with diabetes or an eye disease. For healthy people aged 19 to 64, one visit every two years is considered sufficient. For many Canadians, this is out of reach due to out-of-pocket expenses, and 39% of Canadians do not have access to vision health benefits. Vision care is not a luxury; it is health care provision and must be treated as such.
However, some provinces are moving in the wrong direction and reducing access to eye care for those who need it the most. For instance, the Conservative government in Ontario announced that, starting September 1, free annual eye exams paid for through the Ontario health insurance plan will no longer be available to all seniors.
A study commissioned by the Canadian Council of the Blind and Fighting Blindness Canada has raised alarms on the state of vision care in Canada and the impact of the COVID pandemic on eye care services. In 2020, 1,437 Canadians experienced vision loss as a direct result of treatment disruptions, and the percentage of Canadians reporting that they had an eye exam within the last two years declined between 2019 and 2021.
The federal government must lead the way in saying that eye care is health care and improving access to services and treatment.
New Democrats have always stood for publicly funded health care, from head to toe, including eye care. Our founding leader, Tommy Douglas, fought tirelessly and relentlessly for the universal public health care system that has become a fundamental Canadian value. In fact, the notion that every person deserves access to health care as a basic human right, regardless of their ability to pay, was one of the founding principles of the New Democratic Party in 1961. It was always the NDP’s intention that the public health care system would include eye care. At the founding convention, the NDP stated, “Believing that a country's most precious possession is the health of its citizens, the New Party will introduce a National Health Plan, providing benefits to those who need them without regard to their ability to pay. The plan will cover a full range of services: medical, surgical, dental and optical treatment, as well as prescribed drugs and appliances.”
This belief remains an unfinished project, as many services, such as eye care, continue to be left out of Canada’s national health system. However, the NDP’s position and advocacy have not wavered. The NDP’s 2019 platform committed to achieving head-to-toe public health care, including eye care, for all Canadians. The NDP’s 2021 platform also committed to a long-term path to providing public coverage for eye care, along with other health services.
In May 2021, the member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing introduced Motion No. 86. I want to thank the member for her leadership and vision, no pun intended, in bringing it forward. This motion called on the federal government to work towards the creation of a national strategy for action on eye health and vision care, and that has brought us to where we are today with the bill before us, so I thank the member for that.
I am pleased that my colleague from the Liberal Party agrees that we need a national strategy for eye care, and I hope that members from other parties will also support the bill.
In 2003, the Government of Canada made a commitment at the World Health Organization to develop a vision health plan for Canada by 2007 and implement this plan by 2009. Well, it has been 20 years since the Liberal government of the day made this commitment, but to date, no plan has been developed.
As recently as July 2021, the Government of Canada voted in the UN General Assembly to enshrine eye health as part of the United Nations' sustainable development goals. In this resolution, the establishment of a national vision health plan was endorsed again by Canada. It is time for action and leadership on this issue at the federal level.
I hope that all members of the House will listen to the experts and support a national strategy for eye care by voting in favour of Bill C-284. Eye care is health care. It needs our support. It needs all levels of government coming together, and we need to recognize that.