Financial support for practices may stop at the end of June

AOP chief executive warns of “serious and lasting damage” if COVID-19 funding is cut

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Pixabay/Stevepb

The AOP has warned that ceasing Government financial support for optical practices at the end of June will cause “massive financial problems” for many optical practices.

The statement comes after the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee highlighted that recent messaging from NHS England suggested that financial support for practices may stop at the end of this month.

The development has created concerns that practices will be forced to prioritise private rather than NHS care in order to remain financially viable.

OT understands that optical practices may be permitted to begin offering routine eye care as early as next week.

NHS England is expected to announce more details over the coming days about when routine eye care will be permitted to resume, although by Friday afternoon (12 June) no communication had emerged.

AOP chief executive, Henrietta Alderman, highlighted that the lack of notice around when routine NHS sight tests can be provided creates further problems for practices at what is already a difficult time.

“It appears that the Government is playing ‘fast and loose’ with NHS patients’ eye care which will have the biggest impact in the most deprived areas of the country,” Ms Alderman emphasised.

Although practices will be permitted to provide routine care, the number of patients that practices can safely see will be significantly reduced because of social distancing and infection control measures.

An open letter published today (12 June) from the OFNC to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Primary Care highlighted that stopping support payments at the end of June would cause “serious and lasting damage to primary eye healthcare services in this country, at a critical moment.”

The letter notes that temporary contract arrangements for dentists are being maintained.

The reaction

 

I think it will be a cliff edge

Tushar Majithia, Lunettes Opticians

Lincolnshire optometrist and AOP councillor, Tushar Majithia, told OT that while his practices are ready to begin offering an expanded range of services, it has been challenging to source the required level of PPE.

He highlighted that that GOS payments were not enough to cover the cost of providing eye care even before COVID-19.

“Because of the reduced capacity to see patients, it's going to be a lot more difficult to make that sustainable,” Mr Majithia said.

He added that there is no sign that GOS funding will cover extra hygiene measures and PPE.

An end to Government financial support in June would exacerbate difficulties for many practices, Mr Majithia emphasised.

“I think it will be a cliff edge in terms of support that's been vital to keep a lot of practices going through this difficult time,” he said.

“Most people would've liked to have seen the support reduced down gradually rather than a sudden drop-off,” Mr Majithia concluded.

We need clarity from NHS England and a clear plan to help us provide our vital services

Nicola Gatehouse, Ball & Gatehouse Opticians
  

Wirral dispensing optician and practice director, Nicola Gatehouse, told OT that while her practice is well-prepared to recommence routine testing, staff would see fewer patients than before COVID-19, with extra time allotted to cleaning and telephone triage.

There would also be added costs to the practice associated with purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning products.

Ms Gatehouse highlighted that, even before COVID-19, NHS sight tests were a loss leader and had to be supplemented by spectacle sales.

“The situation is now infinitely worse,” she said.

“There is lots of talk within the independent community on how to tackle this with ideas being bandied about including reducing NHS work to only certain days per week. It's such an uncertain time at the moment and we need clarity from NHS England and a clear plan to help us provide our vital services,” Ms Gatehouse emphasised.

NHS reimbursement for a sight test is an insult

Dr Valarie Jerome, Valarie Jerome Optometrists
  

Newbury optometrist Dr Valarie Jerome only offers private eye care services at her practice.

Explaining her reasoning behind this approach, Dr Jerome shared her view that the current level of NHS reimbursement for eye care is an “insult” both to her professional expertise and her business.

“At that low fee, I would need to run an assembly-line type of practice to get the same profit,” she said.

She added that running a private-only service allows her to spend an hour with each patient.

“Charging an appropriate fee for my professional service allows me to not have to increase the price of my spectacles to cover the loss of profit from chair time,” Dr Jerome said.

A sensible tapering of this support will be vital

Luke Wren, Hakim Group
 

Head of business development at the Hakim Group, Luke Wren, highlighted that GOS grants have provided “much-needed” support during the lockdown period.

“Those responsible for making the decision to bring this support to an end need to know that demand is expected to be subdued for some while. At the very least, a sensible tapering of this support will be vital to ensure that practices do not start to struggle,” he emphasised.

Mr Wren added that this is vital for ensuring the livelihoods of staff and the invaluable service provided to communities by optical practices.

“The ability to do more to meet the needs of all our patients has to be welcomed”

Giles Edmonds, Specsavers
   

Clinical services director at Specsavers, Giles Edmonds, highlighted that there are outstanding issues regarding funding that NHS England does not appear to have addressed.

These include how NHS remote eye care will be funded and who takes on the cost of PPE for GOS patients.

“The NHS needs to address these issues before the current temporary funding arrangement is brought to an end,” he highlighted.

Mr Edmonds noted that practices which remained open are “acutely aware” of the backlog of eye care need within the community.

“The ability to do more to meet the needs of all our patients has to be welcomed,” he said.

“Optical practices have several weeks experience of working in a socially distanced and COVID-19 secure way, and therefore will be some of the safest environments on the High Street,” Mr Edmonds emphasised.