The NSW Government has put a stop to the State’s Spectacle Program until the beginning of the new financial year. As a result, pensioners, the poor and people with disabilities will miss out on free glasses, optical appliances and low vision aids.
The Spectacle Program, which ceased to supply benefits from 29 February, is administered by VisionCare NSW (VCNSW), a not-for-profit company (supported by the University of NSW). VCNSW has administered the Spectacle Program since 1992.
The Program offers people with uncorrected or under-corrected refractive error, who meet strict eligibility criteria, the opportunity to improve their vision and lifestyle through the provision of free spectacles. Similar programs exist in all States and Territories of Australia.
In stamping out the funding, The Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward MP, said the decision was made because the program had run over its budget. “We must make our programs financially sustainable. That is why the government decided to hold the program to its budget of AUD$4.4 million.”
The needs of those who benefit from the Spectacles program will continue to be addressed
She said “the program has exceeded its budget forecast every year for the past 14 years, other than 2000/01. Over this period over AUD$8 million was taken from the out-of-home care budget to plug the gap.”
“The Government was not prepared to keep taking the Spectacles programs overspend from out-of-home care as Labor did in Government,” added Minister Goward.
A Deplorable Decision
Andrew McKinnon, Chief Executive Officer of the Optometry Association of Australia NSW Division (OAA NSW) said the decision is outrageous. “We’re talking about a shortfall of AUD$1 million this year –
it’s nothing compared to the inconvenience it will cause the most vulnerable in the community – the aged, poor, disabled, members of Aboriginal communities in remote areas – they rely on this program completely – they have no alternative – to cut them off at the knees is deplorable.”
Mr. McKinnon added that VisionCare is extremely efficient in the way it administers the program and in no way contributed to the budget over-spend.
Professor Brian Layland, VisionCare’s Chair, said that until two years ago NSWVC gave away approximately 90,000 spectacles each year through the Spectacle Program. “About two years ago, in response to government concerns over the cost of the program, we suggested that all applications for free spectacles or vision aids be accompanied by a Centrelink Statement. That reduced the number of spectacles we gave away to about 70,000 pairs each year.”
He said despite this initiative, because of the great need in the community, costs to administer the program had continued to exceed the budget assigned by the government.
A Budget ‘Guestimate’
“No-one knows, at the beginning of the year, how many people will apply for contact lenses or spectacles through the program so it’s really impossible to determine a budget. However several years ago the government made a ‘guestimate’ and that figure has been used ever since, despite the fact that every year the actual costs are greater. They’ve never reflected on this and decided to increase the allocation, they’ve just said ‘we’ll find the money somewhere’,” Prof Layland said.
When the Liberal Party came into power in NSW in 2011, Prof Layland said VisionCare was informed that all funded programs were to be reviewed.
“Then they said they’d capped the program to the budgeted allowance and when the money was gone we weren’t to expect anymore – that we shouldn’t expect to take any more orders because we wouldn’t have the money to pay for them.
“Under our contract we had to provide the government with 30 days notice of our money running out and that’s what we did. Back in October last year we wrote to the government and made several suggestions to avoid the program being stopped but those suggestions required actions by a certain date which didn’t occur, so the opportunities disappeared,” he said.
Not One More Cent
VisionCare wrote to the government again in late January to give the required 30 day notice and asked whether there would be any more money coming to fund the program. “They said not one more cent,” said Prof. Layland.
He added there has been no indication that the government will change its mind or that any corporates will step in to subsidise the program.
“We have 500 providers at 60 locations throughout the state. We estimate 26,000 people won’t get spectacles. Those who lose, break or have their glasses stolen won’t have them replaced. People we give contact lenses to, to treat keratoconus or people who need bandage lenses for diseases of the corneas will no longer be supplied,” he said.
Andrew McKinnon, OAA NSW CEO, said the Government’s action would have an enormous impact on the public. “For the people who receive the benefits, the worth of this program is almost inestimable.
The criteria is pretty strict in terms of income and assets, so eligible people don’t have much spare cash – that means the people this decision impacts are going to find it tough to get an eye test or access vision correction.”
He said to cut the budget at this time is naive. “Because of recent economic circumstances, you can reasonably anticipate that there will be more people falling on hard times and therefore qualifying in the means and asset tests. So you would expect demand for the program will increase and therefore that you’d need to increase it’s funding.”
While the decision will have its greatest impact on the public, members of the profession will also feel the effects.
“Optometrists, particularly those operating in regional areas, are calling in, deploring the fact that their customers – some of the most vulnerable in the community – have to do without their glasses,” said Prof. Layland.
“One rural optometrist told me the decision would cause him to cut his dispensing staff numbers back. One of our suppliers rang regretting the fact that he had just ordered six months worth of frames specifically for the program.”
Minister Goward said the program is currently under review and will resume with the new financial year on 1 July
2012, however she could not comment on whether or not the budget will be increased at this stage.
“The needs of those who benefit from the Spectacles program will continue to be addressed – but to continue we must ensure sustainability of the program rather than jeopardise out-of-home care,” she said.