In Focus: College leads calls for action in Northern Ireland

Five-point plan drawn up by the College of Optometrists could be the solution to eye care access issues experienced by those receiving welfare. Simon Jones reports

Stormont in Belfast

Calls for an immediate government intervention in the long-running eye care access crisis affecting individuals migrating to Universal Credit (UC) in Northern Ireland (NI) have been made by the College of Optometrists.

College president Professor Leon Davies, and trustee and council representative for Northern Ireland, Professor Kathryn Saunders, wrote an open letter to Peter May, permanent secretary of the Department of Health NI, to outline a five-point plan to address the issue.

The College said it had received urgent concerns from optometrists regarding access to NHS sight tests and optical vouchers in NI and told May it was unacceptable that vital eye care services were no longer readily accessible to this group of people, who had previously been eligible.

‘It is not right that people in receipt of UC discover this for the first time when attending a sight test and optometrists must then turn patients away or ask them to pay,’ said the College in its letter. The NI government’s temporary workaround, the 22-page HC1 document was described as a ‘long and confusing application that will undoubtedly be an additional barrier.’

Davies and Saunders told May that people in receipt of UC across NI would be less likely to see clearly and would not benefit from ocular health assessments, impacting their quality of life and ability to work, socialise and learn, while increasing the risk of avoidable sight loss. Missed opportunities would also add to pressure within ophthalmology departments, they said.

The letter concluded: ‘We ask you to work with colleagues at the Department for Communities to address this as a matter of urgency. Optometrists across NI provide members of their communities with vital routine NHS sight tests and enhanced services, and it is crucial that the move to UC does not prevent people at most need from accessing essential primary care optometry services.’

A spokesperson for the Department of Health NI told Optician: ‘The Department acknowledges concerns raised in relation to UC not being an automatic passported benefit in Northern Ireland and is committed to taking forward the necessary legislation amendments to include UC recipients with incomes below specified thresholds.

‘This was the subject of a consultation exercise in 2017, but it was not then possible to make the required legislative amendments due to the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the first instance and then to the need to respond to the pandemic.

Further work is required to take into account a number of factors including comparisons with other jurisdictions, as well as the cost implications for the different eligibility options.

‘The department will work with stakeholders to see if this interim measure could be improved, to reduce any additional burden placed on individuals who have migrated from a legacy benefit to UC. While the department’s long-term solution remains updating the legislation to reflect the introduction of UC in Northern Ireland.’