A group formed by the state’s optometrists to combat a potential ballot initiative to repeal an Arkansas law they supported has made their organization formal.
Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which describes itself as a “coalition of optometric physicians and patients,” announced its formation on Wednesday (June 19). The ballot question committee said it “aims to educate Arkansans about the need for Act 579,” a law passed in the 2019 regular session to allow optometrist to conduct limited eye surgeries.
“Act 579 gives Arkansas patients better access to quality care by allowing optometrists to perform more of the procedures we are absolutely qualified to safely perform,” said Dr. Belinda Starkey, an Arkansas optometrist and member of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes committee.
“Despite the fear tactics being used by opponents, we are actually only talking about a handful of minimally invasive procedures, done right in your optometrist’s chair, and without the need for general anesthesia,” said Starkey, who is also licensed to practice in Oklahoma, a state where optometrists have been successfully performing the procedures for more than 20 years.
The state’s ophthalmologists opposed the bill when it was debated in the legislature. They have formed a ballot question committee called Safe Surgery Arkansas and are organizing to push for a measure in the 2020 elections to reverse the new state law.
“Every day the people of Arkansas rely on medical doctors who have the experience and training to perform medical procedures to ensure that they are getting world class healthcare in Arkansas,” R. Scott Lowery, president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society, said in a statement last week. “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.”
Lowery’s group has about 45 days to get the necessary 53,941 signatures from registered Arkansas voters to put the referendum on the ballot next fall. Unlike an initiated act or constitutional amendment that respectively requires 8% and 10% of signatures from voters from the last gubernatorial election, the prerequisite for a statewide ballot referendum is not as tall.
Under Article 5, Sec 1 of the Arkansas Constitution, the people of Arkansas have the right to refer to voters any act of the Legislature. However, they must get signatures from 6% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election and submit them to the State Election Board no later than 90 days after sine die of the General Assembly, which adjourned on April 10.
If Safe Surgery Arkansas gets the required number of signatures to get the measure on the ballot and those names are approved by state election officials, Act 579 would be suspended until people voted during the presidential and general election in November 2020.
“The other side claims Arkansans’ eye health is at stake if Act 579 goes into effect, but the truth is, the eye health of Arkansas patients will suffer if this law doesn’t go into effect,” said Amanda Story, spokesperson for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. “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.”
“We encourage voters to learn the facts before signing the petition being circulated by the other side,” said Story. “Doing away with Act 579 would be a step in the wrong direction for our state, and for Arkansas patients.”