Arkansas Lawmakers Don’t See Eye to Eye on Bill to Expand Procedures to Optometrists

Politics

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A state representative has set his sights on allowing optometrists to perform more procedures.

The Arkansas Optometric Association demonstrated a post-cataract surgery laser procedure at the state Capitol Wednesday, one of the things a bill, sponsored by St. Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, would let them do.

Belinda Starkey, the association’s president, said these are minor, in-office surgical procedures, like removing skin lesions from the eyelids or using lasers to treat conditions optometrists already manage.

Starkey argues optometrists today have been educated at a much higher level than state law allows them to practice. She said Eubanks’ bill would bring the law up to date.

“After you hear the testimony from the individuals that we’re going to have in committee, I think most people are going to feel comfortable enough that the optometrists certainly do have the training and the skills in order to perform these procedures,” Eubanks said. 

Under the bill, optometrists would still not perform cataract or retinal surgery, or Lasik. 

However, a fellow state representative and ophthalmologist argues against any change. 

“This is all a patient care, patient safety issue,” said St. Rep. Stephen Magie, D-Conway. “They maintain that their training is equivalent to ours, to that of an ophthalmologist, and there’s no comparison between the training.” 

Optometrists can begin practicing after receiving bachelor’s degrees and attending four years of optometry school with an optional one year of residency in a specialty area. In comparison, ophthalmologists go through four years of medical school and three to four years of residency after earning bachelor’s degrees.

“There’s nothing simple about doing any surgery on the eye or around the eye or involving the lids,” Magie said. “It’s not simple procedures. You have to be able to diagnose things properly and treat them properly. Some of the things they want to do can potentially be very harmful.”

While Magie maintains patients will drive farther for better care, Eubanks would like to see more access to these procedures across the state, especially in rural districts like his.

“You can’t swap out convenience for the quality of care,” Magie said. 

“There are far more optometrists in the state than there are ophthalmologists,” Eubanks said. “They’re in most of our small, rural towns. I know I have one in mine, and that’s normally where I go for any care I need.”

Eubanks plans to file the bill this week. It will run for the first time during the legislature’s “scope of practice” week in February.

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