Most states' legislative sessions have drawn to a close, but not before culminating in significant advances that affect the way optometry is regulated and practiced in a pair of states.
"The recent wins in Alaska and Georgia are examples of the progress doctors can make when working together, and we applaud their commitment and hard work"
In the first half of 2017 alone, the AOA's State Government Relations Center tracked nearly 850 pieces of legislation affecting optometry, including 163 related to optometric boards, 65 telemedicine, 36 scope of practice, 19 vision plan and 13 patient protection bills. That flurry of activity boils down to one crucial focus: patient care.
Doctors of optometry provide more than two-thirds of Americans' primary eye care, often representing the only eye care providers in the most rural parts of the nation. That alone illustrates why it's so important to ensure doctors of optometry can provide crucial services to examine, diagnose, treat and manage ocular disorders, diseases, injuries and systemic diseases.
"To address the rapidly evolving needs of our health care system and our patients, our profession must continue to evolve, and to do that we will be vigilant in our efforts to expand our scope of practice," says AOA President Christopher J. Quinn, O.D. "The recent wins in Alaska and Georgia are examples of the progress doctors can make when working together, and we applaud their commitment and the hard work of doctors in all the states to advance optometric practice and increase patient access.
Alaska finalizes board autonomy bill
Alaska's Board of Examiners in Optometry can now independently regulate development of the profession within the bounds of state statute following a new law that increases access to quality eye care.
Signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday, the law grants the Alaska Board of Examiners in Optometry (the Board) the authority to write regulations commensurate with what is taught at accredited schools and colleges of optometry, eliminating the need for optometry to petition the Alaska State Legislature with each advance in optometric education or technology.
Advocates, including the Board and Alaska Optometric Association (AKOA), argued such action was necessary, considering optometry was the only medical profession in Alaska that could not regulate its own development through its professional board. As such, that omission posed an unnecessary barrier for doctors of optometry seeking to provide the high-level care they are educated to perform. That's why Paul Barney, O.D., board chair, says there's no question that passage of H.B. 103 represents a boon for patient access.
"Area-wise, Alaska is the largest state in the union-we're very rural-and there are many parts of this state that are not served by ophthalmologists, but by optometry," Dr. Barney told AOA Focus prior to the bill's approval. "This is about accessing care so patients don't have to travel hundreds of miles to get to Anchorage; they can have care delivered by a well-trained optometrist."
The impetus for H.B. 103 was born of an entirely different legislative battle in 2014. Then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency up-scheduled hydrocodone as a Schedule II controlled substance, effectively limiting the prescribing authority of doctors of optometry in Alaska and other states. That effort to 'fix' the oversight resorted in a state legislative battle, fraught with opposition, even though optometry had had prescriptive authority for years prior.
Currently, this new law does not change the scope of practice in Alaska, and current regulations governing the practice of optometry are still effective.
Click here (member login required) to read more about Alaska's board autonomy efforts in the July/August 2017 edition of AOA Focus.
Georgia expands scope of practice
Georgia's patients can now access expanded eye care services through their local doctor of optometry with a new law that reduces wait times and enables the state to attract top medical talent.
Signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 9, the legislation advances Georgia's optometric scope of practice to authorize doctors of optometry to perform limited injections to areas near the eye. Georgia becomes one of more than a dozen states to permit limited injections for which doctors of optometry have received extensive education and training for several decades.
Ben Casella, O.D., Georgia Optometric Association (GOA) president, says it's important for state law to progress as the training for doctors of optometry does the same with advancing technologies and care that could greatly benefit patients. In this case, treatment via injection has been taught, both didactically and clinically, in schools and colleges of optometry for years-since 1995 in the case of Southern College of Optometry.
"This measure being signed into law supports our position that Georgia's doctors of optometry are highly skilled, well-trained and experienced medical professionals who are working to give their patients access to much-needed eye care services," Dr. Casella says.
"Doctors of optometry graduating today may select where to practice based on their authorization to use the training they received during their extensive years of study. We proposed this legislation because we wanted to ensure that Georgia remains pro-business and continues to attract the brightest and best in the profession of optometry."
Under the terms of the law, a credentialing system will be established for doctors of optometry seeking to perform certain injections into the eyelid and mucus membrane. Although injections have been taught for years, all doctors of optometry in Georgia seeking to offer this treatment will be required to receive additional training and certification supervised by an ophthalmologist, per GOA.
This law effectively increases patient access for treatment via injection considering there's nearly three times as many practicing doctors of optometry as there are ophthalmologists in Georgia. Furthermore, recent medical advances indicate the benefits of injection-deliverable medications not only to treat styes, warts or cysts, but also for glaucoma and corneal neovascularization.
While 2020 will be remembered for the COVID-19 crisis, AOA affiliates, including Arkansas, managed to successfully navigate the pandemic and opposition from ophthalmology to expand care for treating patients.