Florida optometrists push for expanded treatment options, but ophthalmologists aren’t having it

by | Feb 1, 2021

A turf war has reignited in Tallahassee between optometrists and ophthalmologists over two newly filed bills in the Florida House and Senate.

The proposals, HB 631 in the House and it’s Senate companion, SB 876 would expand the scope of practice for optometrists to allow them to perform limited surgical procedures and prescribe an expanded list of medications – specialties that have long been restricted to ophthalmologists, who have undergone several additional years of specialized training.

It’s not a new battle. Similar turf wars between the two groups have flared up in the past, with the pro-optometry side arguing that expanding their scope of practice will introduce competition into the health care market and provide Florida residents with more access to professionalized eye care.

But a statewide association of ophthalmologists says the bill is dangerous and should not be passed.

“The idea that an optometrist could become licensed to perform surgery through legislation, instead of completing medical school and residency training, is a dangerous threat to patient safety,” said Dr. Sarah Wellik, President of the Florida Society Ophthalmologists. “With Florida being the epicenter of the opioid epidemic, it would be catastrophic for the Legislature to expand optometry’s prescribing authority to over 4,000 non-medical professionals.”

The 2021 battle could soon become more intense as lobbyists line up on both sides to advocate for their respective clients. State Senator Manny Diaz Jr. and State Representative Alex Rizo filed the bills in the Senate and House, respectively. Diaz previously filed legislation to expand the optometrist scope of practice when he served in the Florida House.

While both optometrists and ophthalmologists are both considered “eye doctors,” optometrists typically undergo four years of instruction after undergraduate school in a professional program that trains them to perform eye exams and vision tests, as well as prescribe glasses and contacts, and monitor eye health for diseases like diabetes, glaucoma and dry eye.

Ophthalmologists, by contrast, have gone to four years of medical school after undergrad, after which they participate in a 1-year internship and a residency of 3 years. Those stints are sometimes followed by a 1 to 2 year fellowship program. Ophthalmologists can perform virtually all of the same procedures as optometrists, but can also perform specialized surgeries and generally can provide a higher level of care for more complex eye problems.

The Florida Optometric Association did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment for this story.


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