Politics & Government

Bill to let optometrists perform laser surgeries moves closer to law

FRANKFORT — A measure that would expand the kinds of procedures optometrists can perform in Kentucky continued moving through the state legislature at lightning speed Wednesday.

Senate Bill 110, which would allow optometrists to perform some laser surgeries, cleared the House Licensing and Occupation Committee in a 14-2 vote. The measure was not added to the agenda of the House Licensing and Occupations Committee until late Tuesday night.

Last week, the bill was approved by the Senate four days after being filed for consideration.

Ophthalmologists — medical doctors trained to perform eye surgeries — oppose the bill. Optometrists do not attend medical school, but they do get four years of optometry training after graduating from college and are trained to detect vision defects and prescribe corrective lenses.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would make optometrists work in collaboration with ophthalmologists to perform the surgeries.

Westrom and Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, expressed reservations about voting so quickly on the bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.

"I've been deeply concerned about this bill," Westrom said.

She said she was "deeply offended" by an optometrist who sent her an e-mail message reminding her he had donated to her campaign and she should support the bill.

Palumbo voted for the bill, but she said she might change her mind on the House floor.

Optometrists have given nearly $740,000 in state political donations since 1997, according to the Kentucky Registry of Finance. And optometrists have increased their contributions in recent years.

For 2009, optometrists donated $47,420 in political contributions to all candidates. In 2010, optometrists gave $249,273 to all political candidates, including local candidates.

Ophthalmologists, in comparison, gave only $575 in 2010, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Those numbers do not include money from either group's political action committee.

Optometrists contend that the bill would expand access to care, because about two-thirds of Kentucky's counties don't have ophthalmologists.

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

Oklahoma passed a similar law in 1998 with no serious problems, according to backers of the bill.

Ophthalmologists have expressed concern about potential long-term problems for people who go to optometrists for laser surgery and are injured. They also have questioned why the state legislature is moving so quickly to approve a bill that could have long-term implications and unintended consequences.

Senate Bill 110 now heads to the full House for a vote.

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