Optometrists have formed a group to fight the effort by ophthalmologists to roll back expanded surgical privileges optometrists won in the recent legislative session.

A petition drive was announced last week to attempt to put an initiated act on the ballot to reverse new privileges given optometrists. It was a hugely expensive fight in the legislature and promises to be even more expensive if the initiative makes the ballot. Ophthalmologists, who are medical doctors, argued optometrists don’t have sufficient training to perform some of the newly authorized procedures. They must gather signatures of 54,000 registered voters by July 23 to qualify for the ballot.

The release today from the new group, Arkansans for Healthy Eyes:

A coalition of optometric physicians and patients today announced the formation of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, a ballot question committee to educate voters about the improved eye care options available to Arkansans under Act 579 of the 2019 legislative session.  The coalition formed in response to a special interest group working to unwind Act 579 at the ballot in 2020.

 

“Act 579 gives Arkansas patients better access to quality care by allowing optometrists to perform more of the procedures we are absolutely qualified to safely perform,” said Dr. Belinda Starkey, an Arkansas optometrist and member of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes committee. “Despite the fear tactics being used by opponents, we are actually only talking about a handful of minimally invasive procedures, done right in your optometrist’s chair, and without the need for general anesthesia,” said Starkey, who is also licensed to practice in Oklahoma, a state where optometrists have been successfully performing the procedures for more than 20 years.

 

Legislators overwhelmingly passed Act 579 after weeks of testimony and debate, where they heard from both sides of the issue, including patients who had to endure added costs and lengthy wait times when required to see a specialist for care their optometrist is educated to safely provide. There are full-time optometric practices in over 80 percent of Arkansas counties, while ophthalmologists have full-time practices in only around 30 percent of counties.

 

“The other side claims Arkansans’ eye health is at stake if Act 579 goes into effect, but the truth is, the eye health of Arkansas patients will suffer if this law doesn’t go into effect,” said Amanda Story, spokesperson for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. “For some patients, especially in rural parts of the state, being able to receive enhanced care from their optometrist, instead of having to go through the wait, travel, and added cost of a specialist visit, may mean the difference between getting a needed procedure, or going without,” said Story.

 

Before passage of Act 579, the law governing the practice of optometry in Arkansas had not been updated in more than 20 years.  Eighteen states had a higher scope of practice than Arkansas, including some of our neighbors.  Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana and Alaska have all passed laws that allow the same minor procedures allowed under Act 579, and many other states are looking to do so.

 

 “We encourage voters to learn the facts before signing the petition being circulated by the other side,” said Story.  “Doing away with Act 579 would be a step in the wrong direction for our state, and for Arkansas patients.”

 

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