Arkansas veto referendum petition filed seeking to block new optometry practice law letting optometrists perform some surgical procedures

On Tuesday, June 11, Arkansas lawyer and lobbyist Alex Gray filed a referendum petition on behalf of sponsors Safe Surgery Arkansas. The referendum petition effort seeks to overturn Act 579 (House Bill 1251), which was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on March 27, 2019.
Act 579 amended the definition of practice of optometry to allow optometrists to perform the following procedures:
  • Injections, excluding intravenous or intraocular injections;
  • Incision and curettage of a chalazion (bump on the eyelid caused by a clogged oil gland);
  • Removal and biopsy of skin lesions with low risk of malignancy, excluding lesions involving the lid margin or nasal to the puncta;
  • Laser capsulotomy (a laser treatment following cataract surgery); and
  • Laser trabeculoplasty (a laser treatment for glaucoma).
Before Act 579, licensed optometrists were prohibited from using ophthalmic lasers for surgical procedures.
Safe Surgery Arkansas, the sponsor of the veto referendum effort, argues that Act 579 would jeopardize patient safety and lower the quality of surgical eye care in Arkansas. The group argued, “This new law would allows [sic] optometrists— who are not medical doctors or trained surgeons— to perform delicate surgery on the eye and surrounding tissues using scalpels, lasers, and needles. When it comes to performing surgery, especially eye surgery, there is no substitute for medical school and residency to obtain the necessary level of education and training— which was required to perform eye surgery in Arkansas— but not anymore. HB 1251 removes this critical patient safeguard by granting optometrists broad surgical privileges to operate on the eyes while bypassing these critical training requirements.”
The Arkansas Optometric Association, however, supports Act 579 and opposes the referendum effort to overturn it. The executive director of the Arkansas Optometric Association, Vicki Farmer, argued, “Arkansas legislators overwhelmingly approved this measure during the recent session, after listening to hours of testimony and debate, and learning optometrists in other states, like Oklahoma, have been safely performing these procedures for more than 20 years. Lawmakers also heard from constituents who have had to endure added costs and lengthy waits when required to see a specialist for care their optometrist is trained to safely provide.”
Proponents have six weeks to collect 53,491 valid signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Signatures must be submitted by July 23, 2019.
For veto referendums in Arkansas, a “yes” vote is a vote to uphold the targeted legislation and a “no” vote is a vote to repeal the legislation. Sponsors of the veto referendum are advocating for a “no” vote. The last time a veto referendum appeared on the ballot in Arkansas was 2004. Since the first referendum in 1934, 10 such measures have appeared on the Arkansas ballot. The referendums resulted in the targeted legislation being repealed or overturned in all but one case.
Already set to appear on Arkansas’ 2020 ballot are three constitutional amendments that have been referred to the ballot by the state legislature. The amendments concern a sales tax for transportation, term limits for state legislators, and changes to the initiative process and legislative referral requirements.
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