B.C. artist fears losing vision amid specialists’ fee dispute


Every four weeks, 45-year-old Christina Watts visits her retinal specialist to receive an eye injection, a treatment she says has helped slow her vision loss. 

But now she’s worried a funding dispute could put the treatment out of reach — potentially putting her out of a job.

The Prince George, B.C., artist and art instructor was diagnosed with wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD) — a chronic eye disease that causes blurred vision or a blind spot — in January. 

“I have a big round circle [in my left eye]…a grey mass in the centre,” she told CBC News. “It feels like you’re trying to clean your glasses and you can’t get it off.”

Thanks to B.C.’s retinal diseases treatment program, which covers the cost of her monthly injections, her vision has stabilized a little, Watts says.

A woman painting at a canvas.
Watts says she would ‘rather just give up my eye and pay for my kids’ post-secondary education’ if she has to start paying upfront for retinal care. (Submitted by Christina Watts)

“Since I’ve been getting the injections, [it has] cleared the grey mass so that I can see colour,” she said.

But an announcement that specialists intend to withdraw from the treatment program has left her worried about her vision — and her occupation.

“To not get those treatments would just be devastating,” she said in an interview on CBC Daybreak North. “I would end up on disability.”

The program Watts is enrolled in provides free treatment and drugs for more than 20,000 patients diagnosed with wet AMD, a leading cause of blindness among seniors, and other retinal diseases. 

But last month, Watts and many patients like her received a letter from the Association of B.C. Retinal Specialists saying it is withdrawing from the program on March 31 following a proposed cut in compensation. 

“With inflation, the rising costs of facilities, equipment, supplies and staffing, it is simply not sustainable … to continue to participate in the program under these circumstances,” the letter reads.

Daybreak North6:17Worries over specialized eye care

It maintains the vision of those suffering macular degeneration, but changes to the program leave a hazy future.

If it were to end, patients would have to pay upfront for the treatment, which costs about $1,700 per visit, and then seek reimbursement from the province.

Watts says she’s unlikely to be able to afford those costs, and she’s preparing for the loss of vision in one eye if a resolution isn’t found.

She said there’s also the possibility of vision loss spreading to her other eye, making her unable to continue work as an artist.

“I would rather just give up my eye and pay for my kids’ post-secondary education,” she said.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix says the program will continue without any disruption.

“[The] program is going to be maintained. It’s an important program and people…are going to continue to get the care they need,” he said during an interview with CBC’s Daybreak North. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), which administers the program, also said “coverage for the drugs currently made available under the program will not end.”

But Watts says she is still looking for clarity on who will pay for the program.

“I really kind of need to know what to expect [when] I go to the doctor’s office,” she said.

Specialists file court petition

Dix says the changes to compensation came at the request of the B.C. Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, which represents a large number of ophthalmologists in the province.

In response, the Association of B.C. Retinal Specialists, a subspecialty of ophthalmology, has filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court alleging the society’s proposed fee changes are “unfair, prejudicial and oppressive.”

The retinal specialists, according to the petition, say the society is trying to punish a small group of professionals for earning too much from the treatment program. 

An artist with only her hands visible on screen is working on her sketch, which sits on a table full of sketches and stationary.
Christina Watts’ retinal disease has significantly altered her way of life, she says. As an artist and teacher, this has meant changing how she draws or tutors her students. (CBC News)

In a statement to CBC News, the society denied those allegations and said they will be responding through the court process.

The petition claims the fee changes were proposed to redistribute and equalize funds among ophthalmologists. 

Retinal specialists are among the most highly paid doctors in B.C. According to the Medical Service Commission’s financial statement for 2022-23, a majority of the specialists registered in the program billed more than $1 million — and some up to $4.4 million — that fiscal year, compared to billings of under $500,000 for the vast majority of doctors in B.C. 

Retinal specialists say they will no longer participate in the program unless the proposed cuts are withdrawn. 

A screen door advertising services of a retinal specialist in a Prince George building.
Dr. Andrew Lukaris is the only retinal specialist in Prince George registered under the Provincial Retinal Diseases Treatment Program. Such specialists are withdrawing from the program on March 31 due to a proposed 32 per cent reduction in their compensation. (CBC News)

Dix said the province will be working with both groups to find a solution. 

The PHSA said there will be some changes to how the program is managed following the retinal specialists’ withdrawal.

In the meantime, Watts says she is uncertain what care will look like come April. 

“If the retina specialists aren’t in the treatment program, then who is?” she asked.

“We’re in for vital care and this squabbling is not helping anything.”

Daybreak North9:10Health minister responds to retinal care concerns

Adrian Dix says procedures will continue despite funding concerns.

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here