Eye doctors at center of storm in Unicameral

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April 9, 2014 - 5:24pm

 

Sen. Sara Howard (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Controversy erupted in the Nebraska Legislature Wednesday when a state senator said doctors stopped seeing patients at a clinic where she works in retaliation for a bill she sponsored.

Sen. Sara Howard is development director for One World Community Health Center, which serves a low income clientele out of the old Livestock Exchange Building in South Omaha. Howard also introduced legislation that would have allowed optometrists to do certain procedures, including lancing cysts, that until now have generally been treated only by more highly trained eye doctors, or ophthalmologists.

Ophthalmologists responded with radio commercials saying the bill would endanger patients by letting unqualified people do surgery. Wednesday during legislative debate, Howard said they went further, as her bill advanced from the first stage of debate, or general file, to the second, or select file. "On general file, opposition targeted folks at my job; and on select file, ophthalmologists stopped seeing our patients at my clinic," Howard said.

That set off an uproar among Howard’s senatorial colleagues, like Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery. "I find that appalling. I was one of the ten people who voted against this bill on general file. I’m changing my vote. And I hope the ophthalmologists are listening. This is unacceptable behavior, and I will support you," he told Howard.

Other senators called what Howard described "disgusting," and several raised the possibility of disciplinary action against doctors who refused to see patients.

But Dr. John Peters, past president of the Nebraska Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, the state ophthalmologists’ group, said he was unaware of any ophthalmologist refusing to see patients. Peters said it certainly didn’t describe his actions. "I just saw a patient this morning from One World. And on April 1, I performed a cornea transplant for a patient from One World. And I did that at no charge for the patient," Peters said.

Peters acknowledged he did not know if other ophthalmologists acted differently. "I can’t know what any and every ophthalmologist did or did not do or say. I don’t know about that. But I am unaware of any ophthalmologist doing so and I certainly have not had any tell me that they were going to do so," he said.

In what she said was a compromise worked out with the ophthalmologists, Howard narrowed her bill to eliminate lancing cysts, but still allow optometrists to do more, including prescribing oral steroids. Senators then gave the bill second round approval on a voice vote.

Another proposal advanced on the antepenultimate third-to-last day of the session would require some insurance to cover therapy for autism spectrum disorder, oral cancer therapy, and would subsidize special formula for children with severe food allergies. And yet another measure would eliminate a requirement for nurse practitioners to have a practice agreement and 2,000 hours of training with a physician.

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