Over two weeks after first being heard in the House Public Health committee, a bill to minimally expand the scope of practice for optometrists passed the entire Arkansas House of Representatives with 70 votes. Sponsor Rep. Jon Eubanks (R – Paris) amended the bill several times to assuage fears from ophthalmologists and the medical society. The bill now heads to the Senate where a battle is expected to continue between optometrists and ophthalmologists. Some procedures that optometrists are trained to do or could receive training for are currently only allowed by ophthalmologists. These minimally invasive procedures have been done by optometrists in Oklahoma for over twenty years with little to no reported issues.
The bill was opposed on the floor by Rep. Stephen Magie (D – Conway) who is a retinal eye surgeon. Magie claimed he had no self interest in opposing the bill. Magie claimed he could take the legislators into a side room and quickly teach them how to do these procedures he was trying to block licensed optometrists from performing. He claimed that didn’t mean they would have the judgement to perform them though.
Rep. Dan Sullivan (R – Jonesboro) pressed Magie on whether any of the 14 states that allow optometrists to perform these procedures have repealed their laws due to any bad outcomes. Magie could not cite any states who stopped the practice but stated that didn’t mean there were not problems.
Rep. Carlton Wing (R – North Little Rock) spoke in favor of the bill, claiming it was a needed deregulation bill done in a safe manner to protect patients. He spoke about how greater access to care would benefit patients and could also lead to lower prices.
Rep. Deborah Ferguson spoke passionately against the bill, urging people to not simply support the bill because they were friends with the sponsor. Rep. Jack Ladyman (R – Jonesboro), chair of the Public Health committee, then spoke in favor of bill to saying it provides greater access to care for patients. Rep. Bruce Coleman (R – Mountainburg) spoke against the bill.
In his closing, Eubanks assured legislators he would not have run the bill if he thought it could in any way hurt any constituents. He also pointed out that poll numbers cited by Rep. Magie were from a poll from the lobbyists of the medical society and the ophthalmology society (Impact Management Group) and were essentially push polls to get a desired response. Eubanks also pointed out that Magie was apparently referring an old version of the bill and not the one that was currently being debated and voted on.
The bill ultimately passed with 70 votes and now heads to the Senate Public Health Committee.