LITTLE ROCK — Safe Surgery Arkansas, a coalition of medical doctors with years of extensive surgical training, today announced the formation of a ballot question committee to coordinate a statewide referendum challenging Act 579 of 2019.
Act 579, one of the more controversial pieces of legislation of the 2019 legislative session, allows optometrists, who are non-medical doctors without surgical residencies, to use scalpels and lasers to perform eye surgery on Arkansans. The legislation was supported by non-medical doctor optometrists seeking to expand the types of procedures they are allowed to perform.
Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution gives the people of Arkansas the right to refer to voters any act of the Legislature. Safe Surgery Arkansas is seeking the required number of signatures to get the measure on the November 2020 general election ballot. Pursuant to the Arkansas Constitution, Act 579 would be temporarily suspended until the people vote.
Proponents of the referendum maintain that the eye health of Arkansans is at stake if Act 579 goes into effect and that public sentiment was strongly opposed to the law being passed. A survey commissioned by the Arkansas Medical Society earlier this year found that 65 percent of Arkansans opposed allowing optometrists to perform surgeries with lasers and scalpels. "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. 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," said R. Scott Lowery, M.D., president of the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society.
While the Arkansas Constitution authorizes referendums on any act of the General Assembly, the constitutional provision is rarely used. This would be only the second time in the last 50 years a referendum has appeared on the ballot. Alex Gray, an attorney for the Steel Wright Gray law firm in Little Rock that drafted and filed the referendum for Safe Surgery Arkansas said the potential for harm created by Act 579 requires a voter response. "Frankly, I don't want someone who isn't a medical doctor to come anywhere close to my eye with a scalpel or a laser," Gray said. "The only group that benefits from Act 579 is the select group of people without extensive training who will now be able to offer surgical services. Voters need a voice about who the state should license to perform these sensitive surgeries."
Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who must have four years of medical school, a one-year hospital internship and three-year surgical residencies. Optometrists are not medical doctors and instead complete a four-year program to study eye care, including fitting glasses and contact lenses. Act 579 permits optometrists to perform surgery on the eye using lasers or scalpels and to perform injections. To suspend the law and refer the measure to voters, Safe Surgery Arkansas must obtain approximately 54,000 signatures of registered voters by July 23.