By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – Health officials and optometrists are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill on his desk that would allow qualified optometrists to perform certain advanced procedures, a measure supporters say will improve access to eye care for all Californians.
Assembly Bill 2236, sponsored by Assemblymember Evan Low, would allow optometrists who are certified to treat glaucoma to perform certain other advanced procedures if they meet other education and training requirements.
Specifically, the bill would allow optometrists who complete additional certifications and training to use certain types of lasers for treatment and remove skin tags or non-cancerous lesions that are smaller than five millimeters.
The bill comes as Californians across the state are waiting months for specialty eye care treatment, as ophthalmology care can be difficult for many patients to access. Thirteen out of California’s 58 counties have no ophthalmologists, six counties have just one ophthalmologist and two counties have two ophthalmologists, according to a news release from the California Optometric Association.
Health officials say it will help address the “crisis level” of limited specialty eye care and increase access to treatment for many Californians by authorizing optometrists who receive additional training and certification to perform minimally invasive procedures.
“We have the pieces in place to increase access – optometrists are out there, optometrists are willing, optometrists are trained,” Jeffrey Garcia, optometrist and member of the California State Board of Optometry, told reporters Thursday. “We just need the governor to sign this bill to give us that opportunity.”
Dr. Garcia, who practices in Kings County in California’s central valley, said it is “extremely hard” for patients to access ophthalmology care, particularly Medi-Cal beneficiaries. Dr. Garcia said Kings and Tulare counties have no ophthalmologists that accept Medi-Cal, which leaves one ophthalmologist who accepts Medi-Cal in Fresno County to see over 600,000 patients within their health service area.
If Gov. Newsom signs this bill, California will join 10 other states that allow optometrists to use lasers and 17 other states that authorize them to remove skin tags. Officials said Thursday that optometrists in other states are already performing all procedures included in the bill.
The bill was opposed by the California Medical Association as it moved through the legislature, despite amendments taken to require optometrists seeking certification for advanced procedures to complete at least 43 complete surgical procedures on live human patients.
“While the latest amendments increase the number of required surgeries to 43, that number is far below the clinical education requirements of ophthalmology residency programs,” CMA wrote in opposition.
Supporters contend, however, that the law would “implement the nation’s strictest standards for the training and certification of optometrists before they can perform these procedures,” John Flanagan, dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science at UC Berkeley, told reporters.
“The bottom line is that AB 2236 will help patients access the care they need,” Dr. Flanagan said. “As the dean of UC Berkeley’s optometry school, I can say confidently that the training measures in the bill protect the quality and safety of that care.”
Supporters of AB 2236 said Thursday they are hopeful the bill will earn Gov. Newsom’s signature. The measure is among hundreds of bills currently sitting on Gov. Newsom’s desk with a Sept. 30 deadline to be signed.