Safe Surgery Arkansas says signatures qualify for ballot; Secretary of State awaiting court action

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,986 views 

Safe Surgery Arkansas, which is pushing a ballot initiative to repeal newly passed Act 579, says it has qualified for the November ballot, but the Secretary of State’s office said it’s waiting on Arkansas Supreme Court action.

“These documents show that this issue will be certified for the ballot once the Secretary of State fully complies with the Court’s order,” said Alex Gray, attorney for Safe Surgery Arkansas.

Gray said documents from the Secretary of State’s office indicate that Safe Surgery Arkansas submitted 64,028 valid signatures. The group needed 53,491 to qualify.

A Supreme Court ruling in December called for SSA’s signatures to be counted, but Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which represents optometrists who oppose repealing Act 579, filed a petition for rehearing and the state’s high court hasn’t issued a response to that request.

Chris Powell, a spokesman for Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, said while signature counts have been completed, legal action is still pending.

“We have completed the analysis of the petition for referendum filed by Safe Surgery Arkansas. Due to the pending appeal in the Arkansas Supreme Court, this Office has not made an official determination regarding the sufficiency of the petition,” Powell tells Talk Business & Politics.

“As for the signatures, the Secretary of State should not take any action in connection with the petition for a referendum, because the case is not final. We’ve asked the Arkansas Supreme Court for a rehearing, and that is still pending. Furthermore, opponents didn’t comply with Act 376 or the law prior to Act 376 in its petition process, so there can be no legally effective referendum under Arkansas law,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Committee.

The law SSA is seeking to overturn – Act 579 of 2019 – allows optometrists to perform limited eye surgeries. The legislature approved the measure in the regular session last year. Safe Surgery Arkansas represents the state’s ophthalmologists who opposed the new law and were pushing for the ballot referendum. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which intervened in the case, represents the state’s optometrists.

Safe Surgery Arkansas also contends that a recently conducted poll on its behalf shows overwhelming support for their position, although Arkansans for Healthy Eyes criticized the results. The statewide poll was conducted on Jan. 14-15 among 600 Arkansas voters by Gilmore Strategy Group of Little Rock.

One of the questions reads as follows:

“Q: Thinking about the November election, as you may know there may be a legislative bill on the ballot to allow the people to vote for or against a bill that was passed last legislative session authorizing non-medical doctors to conduct eye surgeries. Knowing this, would you say you would vote for or against this bill to allow non-medical doctors to perform eye surgeries?”

88.7 percent said they would vote against the measure with 5.5 percent supportive, according to SSA. The poll also tested questions related to safety and well-being, access to healthcare in rural areas, and lobbyist influence.

“It’s simple. Voters don’t want non-medical doctors performing eye surgeries, and they are ready to go to the ballot box to show that,” Gray said.

“It’s really no surprise that a poll written, paid for and conducted by opponents of the law shows these results, especially when information being put out there is misrepresented,” said Farmer on behalf of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Committee.

“The opposition group has now spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to thwart a law that passed with overwhelming support. They tried this tactic before, with a similarly deceiving poll paid for during the session. The fact remains, Act 579 is in effect and will allow doctors of optometry to provide care they are educated to provide, resulting in better access to quality eye care for Arkansans across the state,” Farmer added.

“Act 579 gives non-medical doctors with no surgical training the right to perform eye surgery,” said Dr. Laurie Barber, ophthalmologist and chair of Safe Surgery Arkansas. “Due to the high risk to patients, the state’s medical doctors don’t want that, and neither do an overwhelming majority of Arkansans. Most Arkansas voters oppose Act 579 because they understand the risks of allowing non-medical doctors to use scalpels and lasers in and around the eye. These intricate procedures should only be performed by trained surgeons.”