OT  investigates: Eye care in Northern Ireland

Eye care in NI: “We are fearful that patients will come to the hospital late” 

OT  hears from secondary care clinicians about their concerns over a lack of automatic entitlement to free eye care for Universal Credit recipients

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A research fellow and an ophthalmologist have added their voices to calls for the reinstatement of free eye care for some of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable patients.

OT has previously reported how a legal technicality in Northern Ireland has meant that more than 220,000 people on Universal Credit (UC) no longer have automatic access to free sight tests. Patients must fill out the 22-page HC1 form in order to be entitled to eye care.

Although a legislative amendment with cross-party support would enable automatic entitlement – and bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK – action has been stymied by the collapse of Stormont.

Ophthalmologist Professor Tunde Peto shared her concern that the legislative oversight could increase the burden on secondary care.

“We are fearful that patients will come to hospital late and that they will come through the emergency route, as opposed to coming on time through normal channels,” she said.

Peto is a professor of ophthalmology at Queen’s University Belfast and the clinical lead for diabetic eye screening in Northern Ireland.

She observed that while she had not yet observed an effect within Belfast Health and Social Care Trust’s diabetic eye disease unit, there was potential for the lack of provision to have lasting effects on public health.

“Our biggest concern is the inequality of the situation and the fact that it will be the most vulnerable part of the population who will be affected the most,” Peto emphasised.

Dr Katie Curran, an optometrist and research fellow at Queen's University Belfast, shared her hope that changes can be made to remove this barrier to patients accessing sight tests.

“I want the rules in Northern Ireland to align with the rest of the UK,” she said.

“The lack of automatic entitlement to eye care in Northern Ireland has resulted in a huge amount of worry for both patients and optometry practices in Northern Ireland,” Curran shared.

She highlighted that the barriers posed by the interim solution of the HC1 form could result in fewer patients receiving care.

“Patients are going to be more reluctant to show up for their sight tests due to the upfront costs,” Curran said.

“This will potentially lead to delayed appointments, or even patients avoiding having sight tests altogether,” she said.

Curran added that the current situation creates an administrative burden for optometry practices.

Talks are currently underway between the UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party. If an agreement is reached on a financial package, Northern Ireland’s devolved government could be reinstated – offering the opportunity for legislation to be passed enabling the provision of free eye and dental care to UC recipients.

Optical bodies, including Optometry Northern Ireland, the AOP and College of Optometrists, have joined calls for the lack of automatic entitlement to free eye care for UC recipients to be addressed.

The College of Optometrists wrote to Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health NI, Peter May, in November and again in December, drawing his attention to the issue.