Arkansas Supreme Court Denies Ballot Challenge to Scope of Practice Law

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Optometrists in Arkansas had won the right to expand their scope of practice under a 2019 law, but these rights had been held in abeyance while an opposition group sought to have the law put to a vote in a state ballot referendum. However, on Thursday the Arkansas Supreme Court determined that the opponents of the law had failed to gather enough signatures to place the law up for a statewide vote in November.

The court, in a 6-1 ruling, pointed to issues with background checks obtained for the canvassers paid to collect signatures for the ballot measure in making their determination to omit tens of thousands of signatures, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. (A legislative mechanism in Arkansas allows citizens to put a newly passed law in abeyance while they collect signatures for a ballot referendum on it.)

The court's ruling last week ends the current bid to place the state’s new optometric scope of practice act on the ballot in November.

The Arkansas court’s ruling in favor of optometry’s advocates “paves the way for doctors of optometry across the state to begin to provide dramatically expanded eye health care to their patients,” the American Optometric Association (AOA) said in a statement posted on its website.

“The ruling represents a stinging, final defeat for 'Safe Surgery Arkansas' and its financial backers, including national and state ophthalmology organizations who have refused to accept the 2019 enactment of a historic expanded access to essential eyecare law approved overwhelmingly by the legislature and championed by optometry,” the AOA statement added.

The Arkansas legislature passed in 2019 what is known as Act 579, which would allow optometrists to perform:

• Injections, excluding intravenous or intraocular injections
• Incision and curettage of a chalazion.
• Removal and biopsy of skin lesions with low risk of malignancy, excluding lesions involving the lid margin or nasal to the puncta.
• Laser capsulotomy.
• Laser trabeculoplasty.

“This is a great win for optometry in Arkansas and around the country, and I’m so proud of our profession for coming together to make it happen,” AOA president William T. Reynolds, OD, said in the statement. “Optometry is defining its own future, and we’re fighting back with determination and our full resources against those who would turn back the clock on our continued advancement.”

“We are pleased the Court agrees with the Special Master’s findings that the group opposing Act 579 did not follow petition requirements and the measure does not qualify for the ballot,” Vicki Farmer, chairperson of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. She also noted, “Patients across Arkansas will now have improved access to quality eyecare from the doctor of optometry they know and trust.”

According to Arkansans for Health Eyes, Act 579 passed overwhelmingly during the 2019 legislative session, and it “allows doctors of optometry to perform additional routine, in-office procedures that are typically done in an optometrist’s chair and without the use of general anesthesia. This is care Arkansas optometrists are trained and tested on, and it’s care Arkansas patients need and deserve.”

According to AOA, the efforts of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes were “strongly supported by the Arkansas Optometric Association (ArOA), the AOA and state optometric associations across the country and thousands of concerned doctors of optometry who mobilized to fight back against a misinformation campaign that has targeted the much-needed new law.”

The ruling effectively ends the current bid by “Safe Surgery Arkansas” to put a measure on the ballot in November’s general election that would have attempted to repeal the state’s optometric scope of practice law, AOA noted.