Florida optometrists quash effort—again—to pass ‘not-a-doctor’ bill

March 14, 2024
“Not-a-doctor” bills have resurfaced again during this legislative session, after state affiliates and the AOA defeated similar pushes across the country in 2023. In Florida, on the last day of the legislative session, a bill there to limit the use of specific medical titles failed.
Florida Flag against sky

Even after extinguishing legislative efforts fueled by organized medicine and ophthalmology to turn the clock back on optometry’s groundbreaking progress, Florida optometrists rallied to face the fires once again.

In 2023, the AOA and its affiliates nationwide successfully halted efforts to pass legislation that would have prevented doctorate-level, primary health care providers from using the term “doctor,” a designation that has been used for decades in referring to optometrists. Among those states was Florida, which ultimately saw its bill derailed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in a high-profile fight.

But on Jan. 9, Florida’s S.B. 1112, a retread of last year’s bill regarding practitioner titles and designations, was reintroduced.

The Florida Optometric Association (FOA) didn’t skip a beat. They immediately mobilized and educated legislators to ensure this anti-patient bill wouldn’t move forward.

Although it came down to the wire—as in the last day of the legislative session—the bill “died” March 8 due to members of Florida’s House and Senate being unable to concur on the bill’s language.

Afterward, even amid a successful mobilization of doctors of optometry and good relationships with lawmakers supporting their side, optometrists there were pleased but hardly celebrating. It has been two consecutive years for the anti-optometry bills being in the legislative mix.

“We are pleased the bill failed,” Kenneth Lawson, O.D., the FOA’s legislative chair, says, adding, “but we have to be prepared in case this is not the end of it. We’re up for the challenge. We are prepared to go on the offense.”

Dr. Lawson has a warning for other state optometric associations.

Not-a-doctor bills defeated in 2023

Last year, similar legislation was introduced in several states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina. The long-running fight, perhaps the most contentious, in Florida has been dubbed the “eyeball wars.”

The not-a-doctor bills’ reemergence is reminiscent of an effort by the American Medical Association (AMA) about a decade ago to build support for the “Sullivan Bill,” which was rejected in successive sessions of Congress. According to the AOA’s analysis, there are indications the AMA also is resurfacing its “truth in advertising” campaign, which the AOA successfully thwarted. In response to last year’s challenges, the AOA and affiliates rallied to defeat the discriminatory legislation.

The intent of the bills is to undermine optometry’s historic scope advancements across the country and is not, as claimed, about patient safety.

Doctors of optometry have long been recognized by federal agencies as physicians. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services did so in 1986. They also are referred to as physicians under Federal Employees Workers Compensation, as they are at rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers.

Be prepared for new not-a-doctor bills

Although the primary promoter of the bill in Florida has stepped down from her key leadership post as Senate president, she remains in the Senate. To that, Dr. Lawson’s advice for other state optometric affiliates is: “Be prepared.”

“I would definitely be keeping up with what’s going on,” Dr. Lawson says. “It’s good to huddle with optometrists from other states. We’ve been playing defense the past couple of years, but we’re going forward.”

Join optometry's advocates at AOA on Capitol Hill 2024

The AOA’s single-largest annual advocacy event, AOA on Capitol Hill, is April 14-16, in Washington, D.C., and participation is open to all advocacy-minded AOA member doctors and optometry students. Register by Friday, March 15.

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