Arkansas voters to decide whether or not to allow optometrists to perform certain eye surgeries

A veto referendum targeting Arkansas House Bill 1251 (Act 579) was certified for the ballot on January 31, 2020, following the resolution of a lawsuit concerning signature validity. Proponents submitted 64,028 valid signatures. To qualify for the ballot, 53,491 valid signatures were required.

HB 1251 amended the definition of practice of optometry in state law to allow optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures including the following:
1. injections, excluding intravenous or intraocular injections;
2. incision and curettage of a chalazion;
3. removal and biopsy of skin lesions with low risk of malignancy, excluding lesions involving the lid margin or nasal to the puncta;
4. laser capsulotomy; and
5. laser trabeculoplasty.

Safe Surgery Arkansas is sponsoring the veto referendum petition seeking to overturn HB 1251. The group argues that the bill “jeopardizes patient safety and lowers the quality of surgical eye care in the state of Arkansas. This new law would allow optometrists— who are not medical doctors or trained surgeons— to perform delicate surgery on the eye and surrounding tissues using scalpels, lasers, and needles. HB 1251 removes … critical patient safeguard[s] by granting optometrists broad surgical privileges to operate on the eyes while bypassing these critical training requirements.”

Arkansans for Healthy Eyes is leading the campaign in opposition to the veto referendum effort and in support of HB 1251. The group is advocating for a yes vote on the referendum. Arkansas for Healthy Eyes argued that the bill “gives Arkansas patients better access to quality care by allowing optometrists to perform more of the procedures we are absolutely qualified to safely perform… For some patients, especially in rural parts of the state, being able to receive enhanced care from their optometrist, instead of having to go through the wait, travel, and added cost of a specialist visit, may mean the difference between getting a needed procedure, or going without.”

Since the first in 1934, 10 veto referendum measures have appeared on the ballot in Arkansas. The most recent referendum was on the ballot in 2004. In all but one case, the referendum efforts resulted in the targeted law being repealed or overturned.

Nationwide since the first in 1906, 522 veto referendums appeared on the ballot in 23 states. Voters repealed 341 (65.3 percent) of the targeted laws. Voters upheld 181 (34.7 percent) of the targeted laws. The states with the most veto referendums were North Dakota (75), Oregon (68), and California (48). The states that allowed for veto referendums but had the least number of them were Wyoming (1), Nevada (2), and New Mexico (3).

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