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The Safe Surgery Arkansas ballot committee on Tuesday proposed a statewide referendum in the 2020 general election on the fate of a state law enacted in this year's regular session that will allow optometrists to perform eye surgeries.

During this year's session, supporters of Act 579 said it will allow optometrists to use more of their training and provide easier access to eye care for patients in rural areas. But the law's opponents, including groups representing ophthalmologists and other physicians, countered that it will put patients at risk.

Attorney Alex Gray of Little Rock, representing the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee that's a coalition of medical doctors, filed a petition for the proposed referendum on Act 579 with the secretary of state's office on Tuesday afternoon. He also filed the referendum's ballot title and popular name.

Attorney Nate Steel of Little Rock is the chairman of the committee and Cale Turner of Little Rock is its treasurer, according to the committee's filing dated June 6 with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. The committee said it "will advocate for any ballot initiatives that protect the practice of surgery by medical doctors in Arkansas, and oppose any efforts to the contrary."

Gray said the committee will be required to collect valid signatures from about 54,000 registered voters in Arkansas by July 23, and "if we can do that, then ... Act 579 will be suspended until the state of Arkansas as a whole gets to vote on it." Act 579 is now scheduled to become effective July 24.

"I anticipate that we'll be able to obtain the needed signatures," he told reporters.

Secretary of state's office spokesman Kerry Moody said 53,493 signatures of registered voters are required to place a referendum petition on the ballot in the 2020 general election.

A petition for a statewide referendum is required to have signatures of registered voters equal to 6% of the votes cast for the office of governor in the last gubernatorial election to qualify for the ballot. The signatures are required to be turned in at the secretary of state's office no later than 90 days after the adjournment of the session in which the law passed, according to the secretary of state's office. The session adjourned April 24.

Article 5, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution gives the people of Arkansas the right to refer to voters any act of the Legislature. Gray said the constitutional provision has been only used once in the past 50 years to qualify a referendum for the ballot. In 1994, voters upheld a 1992 soft drink tax law in a referendum.

Arkansas Statute Annotated 17-90-101 states: "The 'practice of optometry' means the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and management of conditions of the human eye, lid, adnexa, and visual system, including the removal of foreign bodies from the cornea, conjunctiva, lid, or adnexa but shall exclude other surgery of the lid, adnexa, or visual system which requires anything other than a topical anesthetic."

Act 579 of 2019 will allow optometrists to administer injections around the eye, remove bumps and lesions from eyelids and perform certain types of laser surgery now performed by ophthalmologists.

The law also will require the state Board of Optometry to establish credentialing requirements for a license to administer or perform these procedures. The law will require each optometrist who meets the requirements for certification to perform authorized laser procedures to report to the board regarding the outcome of the procedures performed and require sending the reports to the state Board of Health.

Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, who sponsored the bill that became Act 579, and Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, who was the bill's Senate sponsor, could not be reached for comment by telephone on Tuesday afternoon about the proposed referendum.

Gray, who is a partner at the Steel Wright Gray law firm along with Steel, said the potential for harm created by Act 579 requires a response from voters.

"Frankly, I don't want someone who isn't a medical doctor to come anywhere close to my eye with a scalpel or laser," he said in a written statement. "The only group that benefits from Act 579 is the select group of people without extensive training who will now be able to offer surgical services."

R. Scott Lowery, president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society, said in a written statement that "we are confident that when the people are heard on this issue, they will not allow individuals without medical degrees and without surgical residencies to jeopardize the precious eyesight of Arkansans."

But Vicki Farmer, executive director of the Arkansas Optometric Association, said Tuesday in a written statement that "we're disappointed to learn special interests have formed a group to try to unwind Act 579 -- a law that will give Arkansas patients increased access to quality care.

"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," she said. "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.

"The General Assembly determined Arkansas patients deserve better [and] we think voters will agree," Farmer said. "We encourage folks to learn the facts before signing the petition, which will likely be circulated by paid canvassers."

Metro on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: Ballot bid targets eye-surgery law

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