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By Phil Kabler

Staff writer for the Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill to allow optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures on patients' eyes (SB230) remained in limbo for a sixth day Tuesday, as senators debated behind the scenes whether to send the bill to Health and Human Resources Committee.

The measure -- which has caused considerable infighting between optometrists and ophthalmologists -- advanced from the Senate Government Organization Committee on Feb. 10, but the bill has not been reported to the Senate floor.

Senators, huddling during Tuesday's floor session to confer on the issue, were trying to get a headcount on whether there are enough votes to refer the bill to the Health Committee.

Health and Human Resources Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he's leaving it up to the members to decide whether to send the bill to his committee.

However, he said, the integrity of the legislative process will be compromised if the bill is allowed to bypass the committee.

 

"This would be the first time ever that a medical scope-of-practice bill hasn't come before the Health and Human Resources Committee," he said.

As originally drafted, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock, and seven other senators, merely updated rules of the state Board of Optometry for licensing optometrists. However, a committee substitute of the bill approved last week in Bowman's Government Organization Committee included extensive changes.

Those include giving optometrists authority to perform certain procedures that are now restricted to ophthalmologists, who are medical doctors. Those procedures include a number of surgeries, including certain laser surgeries, as well as giving injections.

"This far exceeds the intent of the original bill," Prezioso said.

Bowman said Tuesday he's confident the bill will be sent to the full Senate on Wednesday, where the senators will vote it up or down based on its merits.

If the bill reaches the Senate floor Wednesday, it would be on course to be on amendment stage Friday, and up for a passage vote on Feb. 22.

Also Tuesday, the Health and Human Resources Committee postponed action on a bill that would require doctors and health-care professionals to notify State Police of patients they suspect are using fraud or misrepresentation to obtain prescription drugs (SB534).

The bill is one of seven introduced in the Senate this session intended to address a statewide epidemic of abuse of prescription drugs, particularly painkillers including methadone and hydrocodone.

On Tuesday, former House Majority Leader and current Wyoming County Prosecuting Attorney Rick Staton said the legislation would help prosecutors crack down on "doctor shopping" by prescription-drug abusers.

He said the problem in critical in Wyoming County, where in January there were 41 arrests for prescription-drug abuse -- and fewer than five arrests for illicit drugs such as crack and cocaine.

"We're at war with prescription drugs," he said.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, asked that the bill be laid over to allow input from physicians.

Jenkins, director of the West Virginia Medical Association, said provisions in the bill that would make it a misdemeanor to fail to notify State Police of possible prescription fraud were "worrisome."

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, also raised concerns that individuals who abuse drugs might avoid seeking medical care for legitimate health problems fearing their doctors would report them to the authorities.

"As much as I want to do something about this ... I worry about the unintended consequences," he said.

Staton said the criminal penalties in the bill are aimed at doctors who are  knowing participants in so-called "pill mill" schemes.

"We do have health-care providers out there who participate in this as a criminal activity," he said.

Reach Phil Kabler at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 304-348-1220.