Oklahoma Voters Reject Proposal That Would Have Allowed ODs to Practice in Retail Locations

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NEW YORK—A controversial proposal to amend the Oklahoma state constitution and thereby pave the way for some retailers to operate optometry practices within their buildings was defeated by a narrow margin in Tuesday’s election. The Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians (OAOP) resolutely opposed the proposal, which was listed on the ballot as State Question 793. The proposal, however, had received support from some big retailers, including Walmart. According to the “News OK” website,  the ballot proposal received 585,355 votes of “no” (or 50.2 percent of the votes cast) and 579,741 votes of “yes” (49.8 percent).

On its website, OAOP noted that the Oklahoma state constitution mandates that optometry must be practiced in medical settings and not large retail environments. “The constitutional language reflects a commitment to a high standard of care and prevents large retailers from placing profit motives above medical priorities. Walmart is attempting to change the Constitution to fit their business model,” OAOP noted.

In a statement on Wednesday, OAOP said, “Eye doctors and other medical professionals united against the proposal, pointing to language that would give non-medical corporations almost total control over doctors, threatening quality-of-care and patient safety. The ballot initiative failed despite Walmart and other retailers pouring millions of dollars into their “yes” campaign, significantly outspending their opposition.”

Dr. Jason Ellen, a Tulsa-based eye doctor and OAOP president, said in the statement that “Oklahomans weren’t fooled by the argument that SQ 793 would lead to lower prices. You can get eyeglasses online for less than $10, so we know this campaign had nothing to do with price,” Ellen said. “It had everything to do with corporate control.”

The opponents of Question 793 launched a “No 793” website, where they explained their stance against the proposal. Among the reasons cited on the website, opponents noted “taking optometric physicians out of medical clinics and lowering the standard of medical care is bad for Oklahomans and bad for vision health…. Oklahoma has some of the strongest laws in the country to encourage safe, reliable and cost-effective vision care. As a result, we have talented optometrists operating in virtually every corner of the state. Rewriting those laws to fit Walmart’s business model will make it harder to find high quality, affordable optometric services.”

Walmart, however, did take steps to make its position clear to voters. (The retailer could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.)

According to a Tulsa World report, Mony Iyer, vice president for U.S. Optical at Walmart, said in September that if the ballot question received voters’ approval, optometrists would be allowed to lease space from Walmart. “And then they can practice to the extent that they see fit there,” according to the report. “So, Walmart does not dictate. Walmart does not limit. Walmart does not do anything to limit their scope of practice,” he added.

Iyer also noted in the interview that approval of the proposal might lead to ODs gaining access to patients they might not otherwise see. “The people who come to Walmart are working families,” Iyer said, according to the newspaper report. “They are on a budget. And very often, they have kids and those kids don’t necessarily get an eye exam if they need an eye exam mostly because it is not convenient for the parents to be able to do that.”