Group to Challenge New Eye Surgery Law

Group to Challenge New Eye Surgery Law
An optometrist examines a patient. Under Act Act 579 of 2019, optometrists could use scalpels and lasers to perform eye surgeries. The law has drawn sharp opposition from ophthalmologists. (Shutterstock)

A coalition of medical doctors called Safe Surgery Arkansas announced Tuesday the formation of a ballot question committee to coordinate a statewide referendum challenging Act 579 of 2019.

Act 579 allows optometrists to use scalpels and lasers to perform eye surgery on Arkansans. Lawmakers approved the law over the protests of ophthalmologists during the legislative session earlier this year.

Safe Surgery Arkansas aims to use Article 5, Section 1 of the state Constitution, a provision that gives people the right to refer to voters any act of the Legislature, to try to stop the law.

To get the referendum on the 2020 ballot, Safe Surgery Arkansas would need to collect 54,000 signatures by July 23. If it succeeds, Act 579 would be temporarily suspended until the people vote.

Proponents of the referendum say public sentiment was opposed to Act 579.

"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," Dr. R. Scott Lowery, president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society, said in a news release. "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."

Backers of the law, the Arkansas Optometric Association, said late Tuesday that it will give Arkansans "increased access to quality care," and noted that legislators "overwhelmingly approved this measure" during the legislative session.

The association said optometrists in other states, including Oklahoma, have been "safely performing these procedures for more than 20 years."

"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 educated to safely provide," the association said in a statement. "The General Assembly determined Arkansas patients deserve better. We think voters will agree. We encourage people to learn the facts before signing the petition, which will likely be circulated by paid canvassers."