The Arkansas Secretary of State today certified that a proposed ballot initiative to repeal a recent law authorizing optometrists to do certain surgical procedures has received the sufficient number of signatures to appear on the ballot this November.

The certification comes after a series of court battles that had held up certification.

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With heavy spending on lobbyists form both sides, optometrists and ophthalmologists have been bickering for months over what became Act 579, passed by the legislature last March. The ophthalmologist-backed Safe Surgery Arkansas committee is hoping to repeal the law via a ballot initiative; the optometrist-backed Arkansans for Healthy Eyes has been attempting to block that effort in court.

“Voters can now rest assured they will have the opportunity to vote on whether to allow non-medical doctors to perform eye surgery this November, and the more than 64,000 Arkansans who signed the petition will have their voices heard,” said Alex Gray, attorney for Arkansas.

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But Arkansans for Healthy Eyes promised to continue the legal challenges against the initiative.

“Today’s certification from the Secretary of State only addresses the petition signatures,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson for the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. “This does nothing to change the fact the ballot title in this measure was never certified by the Attorney General, as required under pre-Act 376 law, and therefore, this cannot be a legally effective referendum for the ballot under that law or any Arkansas law.  We are still weighing legal options and will take action at the appropriate time.  Our main priority, as from the beginning, is to ensure Arkansans have the opportunity to benefit from better access to quality eye care under Act 579.”

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Secretary of State John Thurston initially disqualified Safe Surgery’s petitions because of a new law 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, based upon the old rules. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes then asked the court for a re-hearing on the issue. But last week the court, again in a 4-3 decision, rejected that request. 

In response, Arkansas for Healthy Eyes filed a new lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, challenging the signatures on different grounds. That case was dismissed on Tuesday.

That ruling opened the door for Thurston to certify the petition. He had said that his office was waiting on the legal challenges to be fully resolved before issuing a determination. According to Safe Surgery Arkansas, an FOI request earlier this month to the Secretary of State’s office revealed that it had in fact collected the necessary number of valid signatures to refer the question to voters this November.

Proponents of Act 579 argue that opening more procedures to optometrists will improve access to needed services; opponents argue that additional medical training is required to perform these procedures, including injections around the eye and certain laser eye surgeries.

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