Most vulnerable in Northern Ireland excluded from basic healthcare
More than 200,000 people on benefits that have lost automatic entitlement to free eye care and dental care is a 'diabolical situation'
The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is warning that more than 200,000 people, who are on or about to be transferred to Universal Credit in Northern Ireland, face exclusion from vital eye care and dental care that previously would have been available. The AOP is therefore calling on the Department of Health to act now or risk avoidable irreversible sight loss for thousands.
A legal technicality has meant that people receiving Universal Credit in Northern Ireland are no longer eligible automatically for free sight tests and vouchers.
Last month, an estimated 150,000 in Northern Ireland lost automatic entitlement after being transferred from a host of legacy benefits on to Universal Credit.
Now an Optometry Today (OT) report highlights a further 70,000 existing benefit recipients currently being moved on to Universal Credit will also be affected. If they want to qualify for free eye care under the new system, they will be required to complete a 22-page HC1 form.
Lauren, 33, from Belfast, made an appointment for a sight test after noticing changes to her vision. Lauren, who is a single mother, has a health condition that prevents her from working and is currently receiving Universal Credit. She told OT:
“It was only when I got to the appointment that I found out that I am not automatically entitled to the free eye test,” she said.
She had the option of either paying £29 for the sight test or cancelling the appointment.
“While that may not seem like a lot of money to some people, it wasn’t something that I could fit into my budget. That is either doing my food shop for myself and my daughter, or getting an eye test,” she said.
Describing the HC1 form Lauren added: “It is quite long and it doesn’t seem straightforward at all. There are so many different parts to it”.
Optometrist, Sam Baird, has worked as an optometrist in Northern Ireland for four decades. He owns practices in Lisburn, Dromore, Belfast, Glengormley and Dundonald.
Baird told OT he is seeing an increasing number of patients cancelling their appointments: “Daily we have patients who turn up and cancel”.
Some patients with broken spectacles have asked Baird to do a temporary repair as they cannot afford to pay privately and cannot function without their spectacles.
According to AOP Chief Executive, Adam Sampson, optometrists across Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about the failure.
“This is a diabolical situation. We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of people, some of the most vulnerable in society, being excluded from eye care and dental care – a vital service enabling them to continue working, driving, looking after their children and loved ones. It takes around four to six weeks for a HC1 form to be processed – that’s a long time to be without specs or struggling with dental pain.
“That’s not to mention the number of people who will simply stop making sight test appointments for them and their children for fear of the cost. We could be facing a backlog of people getting diagnosed and accessing treatment far too late.”
“This problem does not exist in the rest of the UK: the people of Northern Ireland are being treated as second class citizens. We call on the Department of Health to act immediately to enable automatic entitlement on Universal Credit – which simply matches the approach in England, Wales and Scotland.
For more information, please contact Serena Box, Head of Media, PR and External Affairs, at the Association of Optometrists, [email protected] or telephone 020 7549 2040.
Notes to Editors
Association of Optometrists
The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is the voice of the optical profession, representing over 80% of practising optometrists. The AOP elevates the work of its members, safeguards their interests, and champions eye health across the UK. For more information, visit www.aop.org.uk
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