Court Blocks Referendum on Arkansas Eye Surgery Law

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LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a referendum on a law expanding the procedures optometrists can perform that had sparked an unusually heated and expensive campaign.

In a 6-1 ruling, justices ruled that the campaign behind the referendum didn’t comply with a law requiring them to certify that paid canvassers passed criminal background checks. Last month, the court also used a similar rationale to block ballot measures that would have overhauled the state’s redistricting process and created a “ranked choice” voting system.

The law enacted last year allows optometrists to perform several procedures that previously only ophthalmologists could, including injections around the eye, removing lesions from the eyelids and certain laser eye surgeries. The law, and the effort to overturn it, prompted an unusually public and expensive fight.

Safe Surgery Arkansas, the group behind the referendum effort, spent more than $2 million on the campaign and had begun running online ads opposing the surgery law. 

“Despite today’s ruling, we are not at all finished fighting for patient safety. It’s too important, and it matters to too many Arkansans,” Dr. Laurie Barber, the group’s chairwoman, said in a statement.

The court declined to rule on other points opponents of the referendum had made, including challenging its wording, ruling those arguments were moot.

Supporters of the law, who had spent more than $650,000 opposing the referendum effort, said they were pleased with the court’s ruling.

“Patients across Arkansas will now have improved access to quality eye care from the doctor of optometry they know and trust,” Vicki Farmer, chairwoman of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, said in a statement.

Supporters of the eye surgery law say optometrists are already trained to perform the procedures and that forcing them to send their patients elsewhere poses a hardship in a mostly rural state where ophthalmologists aren’t easy to find. Opponents said the procedures should be performed by medical doctors who have surgical experience.

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