In a surprise decision, select residents living in the territory are now eligible to have their progressive lenses covered by Health Canada and the territorial government.

Northwest Territories Health Minister Glen Abernethy made the announcement in the legislature Tuesday.

Progressive lenses are eyeglass lens that have different focal lengths, correcting vision at all distances.

The change applies to two groups of people covered under two different systems – Health Canada’s Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program and the NWT’s Supplementary Health Benefits system.

NIHB covers First Nations and Inuit patients who are not insured elsewhere while the Supplementary Health Benefits system provides coverage for people aged 60 or older and Métis residents who are not covered.

“I think it’s good for residents of the Northwest Territories who choose to use progressive lenses,” Abernethy told Moose FM. “It’s certainly another option for those individuals rather than having to rely on bifocals.”

Abernethy says patients will be reimbursed for a portion of the lens cost (like they are for bifocal lenses) and up to a maximum of $100 for frames and arms.

‘We keep trying to encourage common sense’

Abernethy has been advocating for the change since last year, but even still the decision to provide coverage took him by surprise.

“[The federal government] changes the formulary all the time and they don’t tell us necessarily what they’ve done or what they’re changing,” he said.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly.

“So apparently in December as I was writing letters to MLAs and others saying, you know, progressive lenses aren’t covered, the federal government was in the process of changing their formulary to cover progressive lenses.

“So I’ve asked the department to draft up a letter to the MLAs letting them know that progressive lenses are now covered and will be covered.

“This seems like as good a place as any to let you know.”

The announcement also surprised Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly.

“I personally know medical personnel who will shell out of their own pocket because of the ridiculous turnaround times or what’s covered or not covered,” he said.

“How do we get a critical mass to change that ridiculous system?” he asked.

O’Reilly says a number of his constituents have approached him asking for the change.

Abernethy echoed O’Reilly’s frustrations while simultaneously calling on Health Canada to apply more common sense when determining what to cover.

“We just keep trying to encourage them to make reasonable choices and to apply common sense,” he said.

“Unfortunately, common sense is so rare, it might as well be a super power, but we keep trying to encourage them to look at some of the realities as medicines change, as products change.

“We’ll keep trying to encourage them to utilize the super power known as common sense.”