Politics & Government

Eye doctors protest Senate bill about optometrists

FRANKFORT — The Senate approved a bill Friday to allow optometrists to perform some surgical procedures on the eye and eyelid, brushing aside warnings from medical doctors who said optometrists are not qualified and could harm surgical patients.

The Senate voted 33-3 for Senate Bill 110, which advances to the House. Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, objected to the "kangaroo court" that she said rushed a potentially bad bill through the Senate with little public notice or debate.

"This bill was filed Monday evening, and the hearing on it was the next morning at 10 a.m.," Denton said on the Senate floor. "I don't believe this has been given enough time to be vetted."

Optometrists do not attend medical school, but get four years of optometry training after graduating from college and are trained to detect vision defects and prescribe corrective lenses. They are a potent political force in Frankfort and back the bill, Denton noted. Optometrists as an occupation have given nearly $740,000 in state political donations since 1997, according to the Kentucky Registry of Finance.

"Just because we have a squeaky wheel doesn't mean we have to oil it immediately," Denton said.

Ophthalmologists — who are medical doctors — said they were surprised this week when they discovered the bill flying through the Senate. After ophthalmologists started calling, the Senate granted them a brief hearing Friday morning to air their complaints, although it did not stop the Senate vote.

SB 110 "dramatically expands the scope of optometric practice beyond the scope of their training," Dr. Woodford Van Meter, president of the Kentucky Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, told a Senate committee shortly before the floor vote. "I know what they are trained to do, and they are not trained to do surgical procedures."

The bill would let optometrists remove lumps and bumps and use lasers to treat a few specified conditions, although they could not perform Lasik corrective surgery or any other procedure requiring general anesthesia.

Optometrists told the committee that about two-thirds of Kentucky's counties don't have an ophthalmologist, especially in rural areas.

Allowing optometrists to perform a handful of minor surgical procedures would allow greater access to health care in these areas, they said. Oklahoma passed a similar law in 1998 with no serious problems, they added.

SB 110 enjoyed strong bipartisan support, said Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, who chaired the committee hearing. Twenty-seven senators are listed as sponsors.

"Perhaps it was moved too quickly, although the votes were there," Schickel said. "When there's a lot of support for a bill, it does tend to move quickly."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader