Fee failure

Short-changing the optical profession reveals a Government failing to take the long view for improved patient care

Person having a sight test

It may be spring, but a thaw in the NHS sight test fees freeze is nowhere in sight.

Last week, the Government announced that the fee paid for 2017/2018 to optometrists for a sight test would remain at the 2015/2016 level of £21.31. To add to the gloomy picture, the value of optical vouchers, which provide valuable support to patients on low incomes and to children who need spectacles, were also frozen.

In a year when the NHS has repeatedly hit the headlines for its financial and resourcing woes, the context behind the Government’s decision cannot be ignored. We are being told that £22bn of efficiencies must be found across UK healthcare in order run the service effectively.

But in looking to make swift cuts, the Government is surely showing a chronic lack of long-term vision. Underfunding the NHS sight test, despite the growing role that optical professionals are playing in enhanced community services, is counterintuitive at best, if not a wilful failure to meet the needs of patients.

Reiterating the point, Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee chair, Mike George, said: “It is particularly frustrating that the NHS sight test – which is a very cost-effective part of the NHS – continues to be underfunded, while at the same time NHS England is failing to make greater and more effective use of community optical practices to deliver primary care.”

For the AOP’s chief executive, Henrietta Alderman, the freeze on fees is nothing short of a “real blow” to the sector. “The AOP firmly believes that the fee does not reflect the value of clinical professionals who carry out eye examinations. Our members deserve funding that covers the real cost of a sight test.”

Any immediate change in approach from the Government is not on the cards. The lack of a mention to eye health in the Lords Select Committee report on the long-term sustainability of the NHS, published yesterday, is further evidence of this.

But, ever the optimist, the fact that Parliament debated ocular health last week gave me a glimmer of hope.

Until last week, eye health had only been discussed for a total of 12 minutes in the House of Commons Chamber since 2010. But as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, David Mowat, noted: “A number of members have made the point this morning that we have not debated eyes and sight in this place very much over the past few years. It is good that we have the time to put that right today.”

The debate needs to be the start of a new conversation; optics cannot wait another seven years.