The political battle over a new state law that gives optometrists the ability to do certain surgical procedures is heating up. In dueling press releases yesterday, advocacy groups sparred over public opinion on the issue and whether a ballot initiative repealing the law should come before voters in a referendum this November.

After heavy spending on lobbyists from both sides, the legislature last March approved what became Act 579 over the objections of ophthalmologists. Proponents argued that opening more procedures to optometrists will improve access to needed services; opponents argued that additional medical training is required to perform these procedures, including injections around the eye and certain laser eye surgeries.

Advertisement

The ophthalmologist-backed Safe Surgery Arkansas committee is now hoping to repeal the law via a ballot initiative. The group says in a press release issued yesterday that it learned last week through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Secretary of State’s office that it collected the necessary number of valid signatures to refer the question to voters this November. Secretary of State John Thurston has yet to officially certify the petition. The group’s petitions were previously disqualified by Thurston because of new rules regarding requirements for paid canvassers, but the state Supreme Court ruled last month in a 4-3 decision that all of the group’s petitions should be counted.

The optometrist-backed Arkansas for Healthy Eyes has petitioned the Supreme Court for a re-hearing on that ruling. The Court has thus far not responded and Thurston is waiting on that appeal to be resolved before issuing a determination on certifying the petition.

Advertisement

While they await word on the ballot initiative, Safe Surgery Arkansas also yesterday released a poll claiming that 89 percent of Arkansas voters support their repeal effort. Given the ophthalmologist-funded source, take that with a grain of salt, just be careful not to get the salt in your eye.

From the group’s press release:

Advertisement

Optometrists are not medical doctors. Ophthalmologists, however, are required to attend medical school, then undergo three to six years of surgical eye training. … 

“Act 579 gives non-medical doctors with no surgical training the right to perform eye surgery,” said Dr. Laurie Barber, ophthalmologist and chair of Safe Surgery Arkansas. “Due to the high risk to patients, the state’s medical doctors don’t want that, and neither do an overwhelming majority of Arkansans. Most Arkansas voters oppose Act 579 because they understand the risks of allowing non-medical doctors to use scalpels and lasers in and around the eye. These intricate procedures should only be performed by trained surgeons.” …

“It’s simple,” said Alex Gray, attorney for Safe Surgery Arkansas. “Voters don’t want non-medical doctors performing eye surgeries, and they are ready to go to the ballot box to show that.”

Meanwhile, the optometrist-backed Arkansas for Healthy Eyes, apparently well funded enough to have a rapid response team, fired back with their own press release two hours later:

“It’s really no surprise that a poll written, paid for and conducted by opponents of the law shows these results, especially when information being put out there is misrepresented,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Committee.

“The opposition group has now spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to thwart a law that passed with overwhelming support. They tried this tactic before, with a similarly deceiving poll paid for during the session. The fact remains, Act 579 is in effect and will allow doctors of optometry to provide care they are educated to provide, resulting in better access to quality eye care for Arkansans across the state,” said Farmer.

“As for the signatures, the Secretary of State should not take any action in connection with the petition for a referendum, because the case is not final. We’ve asked the Arkansas Supreme Court for a rehearing, and that is still pending.  Furthermore, opponents didn’t comply with Act 376 OR the law prior to Act 376 in its petition process, so there can be no legally effective referendum under Arkansas law,” said Farmer.

Here are the procedures that optometrists are allowed to perform under Act 579:

(i) Injections, excluding intravenous or intraocular injections;

(ii) Incision and curettage of a chalazion;

(iii) Removal and biopsy of skin lesions with low risk of malignancy, excluding lesions involving the lid margin or nasal to the puncta;

(iv) Laser capsulotomy; and

(v) Laser trabeculoplasty.

Here is the proposed ballot title:

Advertisement