We believe the current system for delivering allowances for continuing education and training (CET) to optometrists is seriously flawed and we’re campaigning to change it. We want the allowance to be paid to everyone who’s entitled to it and we’ll assist you, where possible, in successfully navigating your way through the claims process.
CET allowances are negotiated each year by the The Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) and are paid out of the General Ophthalmic Services (GOS) budget. Currently, the allowance for CET stands at £545 and it is available to optometrists who:
Have carried out GOS sight tests in the year that the grant is being claimed for
Have been on an ophthalmic performers list for at least six months of that year
Have taken sufficient CET in the year to maintain their registration
Taking responsibility for CET
As part of a registered profession, optometrists should take their CET obligations seriously. Achieving the GOC minimum requirement for registration involves taking CET across all of the core competencies and practitioners have a responsibility to consider professional skills, assess their abilities and judge where CET is most useful in their practice.
While there is no regulation on who decides the CET competencies a registrant takes, if you’re an employed optometrist, you should talk to your employer about your CET points, ideally as part of an annual appraisal, and agree on a CET plan together. It’s advisable to choose your core competencies through discussing with your employer. Likewise, if you’re an employer you shouldn’t choose CET courses for employees without considering their needs and seeking their input into the decision.
Employers should allow employees time to undertake CET. It’s not acceptable to expect employees to undertake CET in unscheduled gaps, between appointments, before or after working hours, or on an ad hoc basis.
Finding a contractor to make your claim
According to regulations in England, Scotland and Wales the allowance can only be paid directly to an employer/GOS contractor as the money comes out of the GOS budget. Therefore employees and locums must claim through a contractor. Uniquely, in Northern Ireland all optometrists who provide GOS sight tests are designated as contractors and consequently do not need to have their forms counter-signed. Payments are made to them directly.
However, there is no obligation for an optometrist on the performers list to process their claim through a particular contractor, although it’s expected that most claims are made through the contractor the employee works for, and in Scotland your claim must be made by someone you have worked for. Nor is a contractor obligated to sign the claim form of an optometrist/ performer - even one who is employed in their practice.
Some contractors are unwilling to accept the administrative burden of signing the claim form and then managing the money between the payment agency and the performer. This has become a particular issue in England where the transition to the payment of the allowance by Primary Care Support England has led to late, unpaid and hard to identify payments. NHS England must ensure this situation improves. Because of this some optometrists can have difficulty making claims because they are unable to find a contractor either willing to sign the forms or to pass on the money once it’s been received.
Making a claim as a locum
This can be a particular problem for locums. A number of employers who use locums are concerned that managing their allowance payment process could be used by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) as evidence of an employer/employee relationship rather than one of a practice owner engaging a self-employed optometrist. We advise contractors not to worry about this because locums providing an invoice of the details of the claim should be adequate evidence. Individual locums can ask any of the contactors they work for to process their claim.
Employers retaining allowances
Once the employee has found a willing contractor to process the claim, both the claimant and the contractor have to sign the claim form.
As the allowance is claimed in arrears, claims need to be submitted within a ‘claims window’, which varies between devolved nations. In England, Scotland and Wales the claims window usually runs for some months in the second half of the year, while Northern Ireland’s (usually the latest to pay) runs in the early part of the year but can vary.
The allowance is meant to compensate the practitioner, or the business, for the time taken to undertake the CET. It’s not supposed to cover the cost of CET courses, travel or accommodation. Most allowances are paid to the contractor, who must pass it on to the claimant, unless there has been a mutual agreement to retain it. To be entitled to retain the money, the contractor must either provide CET in paid time to the performer, or have a formal agreement with the performer about the allowance and how it will be managed. Any agreements reached between an employer and employee should address the purpose of the allowance.
Weaknesses in the system
The system is far from perfect and needs reform. What’s more, processing claims comes with an unreasonable amount of administration, for both performers and contractors, - often due to inconsistencies in interpretation by NHS payment agencies of the claiming requirements. These inherent weaknesses result in a significant number of eligible optometrists being unable to claim their CET allowance.
While the allowance is paid from the GOS budget and therefore understandably is only made available to optometrists who carry out GOS sight testing, hospital optometrists are also obliged to undertake CET and some get no help from their employer towards this, either financially or in terms of time or training provision. It is understandable that optometrists who work 100% of their time in hospitals find it unfair that they have no assistance towards achieving their CET requirements.
We continue to lobby for change and draw the attention of the relevant health departments to the system’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, while we lobby to improve the system, practitioners should work together to make the system work as well as it can and to ensure that all optometrists entitled to CET are able to claim and receive the allowance they are entitled to.
We provide advice on the claims process, eligibility, deadlines, posting claim forms. Read the claims advice each year before submitting claims, as it may change from time to time. If you’re struggling to find a willing contractor, contact us for assistance. We can, where possible, help match up willing contractors with performers.
Position statement published: July 2017