Blind World Magazine

Free eye checks for everyone in Scotland.

October 25, 2005.

Key points . Scotland to get most comprehensive eye care policy in UK.

. Policy demanded by Liberal Democrats in 2003 coalition deal.

. Critics argue policy diverts resources from needy as well-off can use it.

Key quote:

"It really will put Scotland some way ahead of the rest of the country. It is a ground-breaking agreement" - Scottish Executive source

Story in full ADVANCED eye examinations which could save the sight of hundreds of Scots every year are to be made free on the NHS, The Scotsman can reveal.

Lewis Macdonald, the deputy health minister, will today unveil the Executive's long-awaited plans to provide free eye checks for everybody in Scotland, regardless of income.

But The Scotsman understands that Mr Macdonald will surprise MSPs when he reveals that the Executive is to go much further than anybody anticipated - and spend millions of pounds more.

The minister will announce proposals to cover the costs of major eye examinations, which can take up to an hour to complete, for those deemed most at risk of developing serious problems. When implemented, the Executive's plans will provide Scots with a level of preventative eye care unrivalled in the UK.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind estimates 3,000 Scots every year start to have serious sight issues. The scheme is designed to catch these problems early, when they are treatable.

An Executive source confirmed that the deal had been agreed at the end of negotiations with Scotland's optometrists to introduce both free eye checks for all and detailed examinations for the most vulnerable.

"It really will put Scotland some way ahead of the rest of the country. It is a ground-breaking agreement," he said.

Mr Macdonald's announcement represents a major success for the Liberal Democrats, who demanded that free eye and dental checks be included in the coalition deal they struck with Labour in 2003.

Some Labour MSPs and many optometrists were unhappy with the commitment to provide free eye checks for all, warning that it would simply give free tests to thousands of middle-class families who could afford to pay, and deprive money from those most in need. They argued that, if the money was available to be spent on this ambitious project, it would be better targeted in the form of really thorough examinations for those who needed it most.

This was the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly, which invested extra resources in its Eye Care Initiative, ploughing resources into detailed examinations for vulnerable groups such as diabetics and specific ethnic groups more susceptible than others to particular eye problems.

What today's deal will mean for most Scots is that the routine, 15-minute eye check, which most people are used to having will now be free. But if anybody is found to be at risk of another problem, such as glaucoma, or has diabetes, they will then be offered a major eye examination.

One Lib Dem MSP said: "We fought hard for this. There were attempts to water it down and change it, but we held out and now we have secured it."

The Executive is having to make a sizeable financial commitment to this pledge. A simple eye test costs between 15 and 20 to complete and the Executive already covers this cost for many Scots - among them everybody under 16 or over 60 and those on benefits.

Not only will the Executive now cover this cost for all Scots, but it will pay opticians up to three times as much for the detailed eye examinations for those who need them.

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