OKLAHOMA CITY — Voters will get to decide next month if they want to change a decades-old law that potentially limits access to eye care and eyewear.
Supporters of State Question 793 say the ballot measure will change the way Oklahomans obtain eye care because it will allow optometrists to practice in big-box retail establishments — like Target and Walmart — and in other independent stores in hopes of offering more affordable options.
Currently, consumers receive eye exams at optometry offices. They can then purchase glasses at any location.
Critics, though, said the measure could force smaller optometrists out of practice and could let big business dictate how eye doctors treat patients.
John Kusel, the former president of Oklahoma’s Silver Haired Legislature, said his group has been unsuccessfully lobbying state lawmakers for several years to expand eye care access. Kusel’s group pitches ideas designed to benefit the state’s 800,000 senior citizens.
To get the measure before voters, Kusel said it ultimately took an initiative petition signature drive after the issue was blocked for years by the Legislature, he said.
Kusel, of Fort Cobb, said many senior citizens struggle to afford eyeglasses in part because of Oklahoma’s optometrists’ high prices.
Kusel said his wife, for instance, priced eyewear at three different outlets in Lawton. When she decided to drive 45 miles south to Wichita Falls, Texas, she was able to buy identical eyewear for almost $200 less, he said.
“We will be able to buy eyewear at a much lower price than what we pay now because we will have competitive pricing from retail outlets,” he said.
Tim Tippit, an Edmond businessman who also serves chair of Yes on 793, operates seven optical retail stores in Michigan and Ohio. He’d like to open some locations in Oklahoma.
He said his businesses provide comprehensive full eye examinations to every patient that visits. Walmart and the other large companies in the coalition have pledged to do the same in Oklahoma.
“We’ll still be providing quality eye care,” he said.
Tippit said Oklahoma needs affordable eyewear. He said his research found that frame prices are 15 to 60 percent higher in Oklahoma than in surrounding states.
Dr. David Cockrell, a Stillwater optometrist, said there are zero studies showing that eye care costs less in the 47 other states that currently allow optometrists to practice at retailers.
“I think it’s disingenuous for them to imply that it’s going to cost less,” he said.
Big corporations like Walmart decrease the number of small businesses operating in communities, he said. Cockrell said he’s concerned that the measure will ultimately force a number of independent optometrists to close.
He also said the measure allows corporate employers to determine the scope of practice for an optometrist.
“I think it’s terrible for a patient-doctor relationship,” Cockrell said.
The “no” movement has already raised nearly $1.42 million — mostly from optometrist donations — through June, according to the most recent campaign finance records available.
If the state question passes, a patient could potentially visit a retailer and not receive a comprehensive exam, critics said. Corporations could have a quota on the number of examinations that have to turn into eyewear sales, said Joel Robison, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians. Robison is the spokesman for the “No on 793” campaign.
“We believe that there are going to be lots of conditions and diseases that could have been caught earlier that won’t be diagnosed because Walmart will only be focused on providing a refraction or providing a patient script so that they can sell a pair of eyeglasses,” Robison said.
He said opponents also don’t believe that health care should be turned into a retail mechanism to generate revenue.
“We will be the only state in the country that would allow a retailer to tell a doctor how to treat a patient,” he said.
According to the latest campaign finance reports filed in June, Walmart and Costco were among the largest financial supporters of “Yes on 793.” The two businesses donated more than $55,000 of the $105,100 raised.
Jennifer Sommer, director of Health and Wellness Practice Compliance for Walmart, said the company’s mission is to help people save money and live better. Sommer said Walmart believes it can help Oklahoma’s consumers spend less.
Walmart leases space to optometrists, but does not dictate how they practice, she said.
Also, Oklahoma is unique in that it allows optometrists to perform laser surgeries, she said. Retail landlords, she said, want to ensure that they can restrict eye surgeries from occurring in settings that may not be clinically appropriate.
“I hope that Oklahomans support this because it offers different opportunities to seek eye care in settings that are convenient for them,” Sommer said. “And it offers choice. It offers different opportunities for different products and services to be offered, but it’s all held to the same standard.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.