09/24/2012 06:01 EDT | Updated 11/24/2012 05:12 EST

Rules keep needy B.C. kids from affordable eyeglasses

A single father is speaking out about rules that prevent him and thousands of other low income B.C. residents from getting subsidized, affordable eyeglasses.

“There shouldn’t be any [government] restriction on where to buy glasses,” said Chris Van Dyke. “There must be many, many children and elderly that are living without the proper eyewear.”

Van Dyke is raising his teenage son and daughter alone, on a fixed income. The province gives subsidies — between $118 and $179 per pair — to needy families for glasses, but recipients have to pay the difference in price out of their own pockets.

“The quotes I got in store were between $750 to $1,000 dollars for glasses for all three of us,” said Van Dyke. “It means the difference between going further into debt. Putting groceries on the table.”

Online prices much lower

He wanted to buy online instead from a Vancouver-based company that quoted him one-third what other retailers did. However, the government won’t allow him to use his subsidies for online purchases.

“I went to the Ministry and asked if I could buy online and they explained that I can’t. ‘You have to buy in a brick and mortar store’,” said Van Dyke.

He believes changing that would save taxpayers (in reduced subsidies) and would mean many people who are going without eyeglasses could get them.

“There’s a lot of people out there who need glasses and it’s just the way the system is right now they are unaffordable for many people.”

B.C’s ministry of social development said 45,000 adults received subsidies for eyeglasses since 2008, while 11,000 children were subsidized in the last year.

Ontario and B.C. both don’t allow online purchases on subsidy, but the ministry said Quebec, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Yukon do.

Other restrictions lifted

The restriction in B.C. is somewhat related to a bigger tug of war between optometrists and Clearly Contacts, the large Vancouver online retailer.

“There are business interests at play here,” said Van Dyke.

Until recently, B.C residents had to go through an optometrist to buy glasses or contacts. But this spring — despite objections from optometrists — the government lifted those restrictions. This would allow B.C. residents to buy glasses from the online company, without going through an optometrist.

However, the optometrists still have the market cornered for low-income clients — because only they are allowed to bill the government for the subsidy.

“The Ministry provides coverage for prescription eyeglasses when they are dispensed in person by an optician, optometrist or ophthalmologist,” said a ministry spokesperson.

The online retailer doesn’t have that privilege. Van Dyke and other recipients also aren’t allowed to have the money paid directly to them.

'No brainer'

“This is a no brainer. Absolutely a no brainer,” said Van Dyke. “I don’t think this is very hard for anybody to figure out that it should be fixed.”

B.C. Minister of Social Development Moira Stilwell said she wasn’t aware of the restriction until Go Public asked about it.

“Of course we are looking into it,” said Stilwell. “We are always looking for ways to serve the clients we support better and recoup savings and we understand the online purchasing world is a big part of those kinds of things.”

When asked if she will lift the restriction, she said, “We’re going to try.”

“All it takes is some creative thinking,” said Van Dyke. “Common sense should be common sense.”

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