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House Committee Fails to Pass Bill That Expands the Practice of Optometry

Sarah Kellogg

A bill that would expand the procedures optometrists in Arkansas could perform on a patient, including some surgery, failed in committee after a close vote. The legislation allows optometrists to use ophthalmic lasers for some surgical procedures, an action that is currently prohibited.

The House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, did not pass the legislation on Tuesday, after hearing people speak for and against the bill. The committee limited testimony to 30 minutes to each side, with each side taking the entirety of that time.

Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, one of the bill’s sponsors and who presented the bill to the committee, said the issue was brought to him by an optometrist, who said they were already getting the training needed for such surgical procedures, but were not allowed to put that training to use. As a rural state, Eubanks believed the legislation would expand coverage for eye care in the state.

"Having access for our people that are in rural areas is important to me. Currently we have optometrists practicing in 80 percent of the counties and if my information is accurate, about 30 percent for ophthalmologists," Eubanks said.

Opponents of the bill testified that the average driving time to an optometrist versus an ophthalmologist, who can conduct such procedures, is no different.

According to the legislation, the definition of optometry would expand to include  "correction and relief of ocular abnormalities by surgical procedures, and laser surgery procedures" with the exclusion of invasive eye surgeries. Proponents of the bill said only a limited number of procedures would be allowed under this definition. However, for some legislators, the language of the bill was too vague and could be interpreted to include other surgical procedures. Rep. Stephen Magie, D-Conway, was one of those lawmakers.

"I have a lot of problems with this bill. It’s an exclusionary bill. There are too many, 'maybes,' 'what fors,' 'shall bes,' 'what haves' and even if all of that is changed, this still opens this thing up to about 100 and something surgical procedures they can do. And they’ll say all day long that they’re not going to do them, but somebody will," Magie said.

Another point of debate between those for and against the bill was the amount of training on surgical procedures that optometrists receive versus ophthalmologists. Belinda Starkey, president of the Arkansas Optometric Association Board, says students in optometry programs already receive the up-to-date training necessary for these procedures.

"Students in optometry schools across the nation are educated to provide patients with the most advanced level of care. And that’s a much higher level than what Arkansas law will allow them to practice," Starkey said. 

Dr. Tracy Baltz, an ophthalmologist, spoke against the legislation, saying the training optometrists would receive is not comparable to the experience ophthalmologists have in surgical procedures. Baltz also expressed concern that the bill would allow optometrists to conduct more procedures than explicitly stated, but is opposed to it no matter what.

"I would still be against it, if it’s just these three or four procedures because one of those procedures is, that they can take a needle and stick it in the eye. That takes a lot of training. That takes a lot of time under the microscope to learn how to do that successfully. It just takes that training. I just have to keep harping on the training," Baltz said.

Ultimately, the bill failed in committee, with a vote of 9-10.