Courier-Journal: Optometrists spent $28,000 last month to lobby bill to expand their practice

Written by Tom Loftus

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Optometric Association reported Tuesday that it spent $28,091.96 on its successful February lobbying blitz for a bill to allow optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures.

In a report filed with the Legislative Ethics Commission, the group said it paid $26,500 to 14 lobbyists for their work during the month.

It also reported $175.96 in miscellaneous lobbying expenses and $1,416 for the cost of an “Optometry Day At the Capitol” lunch to which all members of the General Assembly were invited.

The focus of the group’s lobbying efforts was Senate Bill 110, which allows optometrists to perform certain laser eye surgeries and other procedures previously reserved for ophthalmologists.

The ophthalmologists contended that optometrists do not have the training to do the new procedures.

Optometrists are doctors of optometry who must attend four years of optometry school after getting their undergraduate degrees. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who must serve years as residents, when they get training in eye surgery, after they graduate from medical school.

The Courier-Journal reported last month that the Kentucky Optometric Association’s political action committee and its members made more than $400,000 in political contributions during the past two years to the political committees of 137 of the legislature’s 138 members and Gov. Steve Beshear.

In a legislative session otherwise noted for partisan conflict, SB 110 made a quick trip through the General Assembly. It passed the Senate 33-3 and the House 81-14 within a span of 12 days — becoming the first bill of the session to be approved by both chambers. Beshear signed it into law in late February.

The optometric association, according to its reports, never spent more than $4,000 on lobbying in any single month during the past five years until January, when it spent $6,000. But in February it added 14 new lobbyists to the four who had already worked for the association.

The report filed Tuesday shows that it paid $26,500 in fees during the month to 13 of those lobbyists.

Darlene Eakin, executive director of the Kentucky Optometric Association, said the group’s lobbying costs were high because “we just felt like we might need additional advocates” to convey its message that SB 110 would give Kentuckians easier access to safe eye care by optometrists trained to perform the new procedures.

Reports on February expenses from more than 600 groups that lobby the General Assembly were due Tuesday to the commission. Because it takes the commission about a week to post all totals on its Website, the amount spent by the optometrists could not be compared with spending by all other groups.

However, reports of some selected groups show that the optometrists spent far less than at least one other group last month. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines, reported $49,896.75 in lobbying expenses for February.

The group successfully opposed legislation that would have required prescriptions for medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, which is a key ingredient in the illegal drug methamphetamine.

According to the ethics commission, the group paid $14,000 to lobbyists during the month and $35,896.75 for a phone bank operation.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, which represents ophthalmologists, reported spending $2,000 during February on lobbying.

And the Kentucky Medical Association, which opposed SB 110 but also lobbies on a broad range of bills, reported spending $20,257.75.