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Should optometrists do more surgeries? Arkansas plan to decide issue on 2020 ballot may or may not happen

An unusual process is tentatively slated to take place in Arkansas in the 2020 election: a referendum that would allow voters to decide whether optometrists should be allowed to perform a broader range of surgeries under an amended definition of the practice of optometry.

Voters could choose to support a law passed in 2019 to expand optometrists’ practice or overturn the law.

Following submission of the required signatures by registered voters, on August 20 the state Board of Election Commissioners certified the title and popular name of the ballot issue as meeting the standards of state law.

But the other requirement—certification that the ballot measure sponsor has obtained enough valid signatures to get the proposed referendum on the ballot—formed a roadblock when the Secretary of State in charge of that certification said correct procedures were not followed so there were not enough valid signatures.

The new election law requires sworn statements that they do not have convictions that would prohibit them from collecting signatures before they collect signatures.

The measure, Act 579, would authorize setting requirements for optometrists to be certified to administer injections around the eye, remove lesions from the eyelids, and perform certain types of laser surgery now performed by ophthal-mologists, who are physicians, but would not allow optometrists to do cataract surgery or radial keratotomy surgery or sell prescription drugs.

Backers and opponents have significantly unequal war chests. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, the pro-optometrist group, had raised $97,675 in contributions by August while Safe Surgery Arkansas, opposed to the scope-of-practice expansion, raised $656,200 in contributions.

Supporters of the referendum say it would allow optometrists to use more of their training and ease patient access to eye care in remote areas. Opponents contend that the measure would put patients’ safety at risk. The question of the referendum’s appearance on the 2020 ballot to settle the issue, however, is in the courts and remains to be decided.