An optometry office in Duncan, Okla.

Jackie Fortier / StateImpact Oklahoma

Once feuding, Walmart and optometrists see eye to eye on new bill

  • Jackie Fortiér

Jackie Fortier / StateImpact Oklahoma

An optometry office in Duncan, Okla.

A bill allowing optometrists to practice in big-box stores like Walmart is quietly making its way through the state legislature. It may look familiar to Oklahoma voters, who defeated a similar state question last fall.

Oklahoma and Rhode Island are currently the only two states that ban the sale of glasses and contacts outside of non-medical settings and bar optometrists from setting up shop in large retail stores. Senate Bill 100 would lift that ban, allowing chains like Walmart and Target to sell eyewear and allow optometrists to lease office space in the stores.

The bill is endorsed by both the state’s optometric association and Walmart, who just a few months ago were on opposing sides of SQ 793. At face value, the two measures look very similar.

The constitutional measure would have allowed Oklahoma optometrists to open clinics in large retail stores as well as the sale of eyewear. But last year, state optometrists were vehemently opposed to a section of the state question which would have allowed optometrists sign a contract with a retailer like Walmart limiting their scope of practice — the procedures and services an optometrist is allowed to perform under their state license, including laser eye surgery.

Oklahoma optometrists were a powerful foe of the ballot measure and made up a majority of the individual contributions against the state question.

In total, Oklahomans Against SQ 793, headed by the state’s optometric association, spent more than $2.9 million, while the yes campaign funded primarily by Walmart spent more than $4.6 million.

The measure failed, but just barely.

What changed?

“After the election, Walmart expressed a desire to continue on the path that they were going,” said Joel Robison, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians.

“We had some discussions with them, and discussions within [our] own membership about what’s the best way for us to approach this,” he said.

Robison says that during the campaign it was made clear that Oklahomans want more eyewear options.

“We decided to develop some legislation that would protect patients and that would require optometrists no matter where they practice, be independent practitioners, that they would not be employees of any retailer, possibly within a retail setting.”

He says that unlike in the state question, the bill won’t allow the retailer to dictate any part of the eye exam.

Jackie Fortier / StateImpact Oklahoma

One of many posters against SQ 793 in Dr. Fritts’ office in Sept. 2018.

“The retailer can’t require that so many patients are seen per day or the hours that the optometrist must be open. Any of those things that might allow the retailer to put pressure on optometrists to lower their standard of care,” Robison said.

That includes surgeries. Optometrists are not medical doctors and in many states aren’t allowed to perform minor eye surgeries — but in Oklahoma, they can.  That became a sticking point during the state question campaign, with Walmart seeking to prohibit laser eye surgeries from being performed in their stores. Oklahoma optometrists fired back, calling it too much corporate interference in their scope of practice.

The two sides seemed to have reached a compromise. Under the bill, any optometry clinic within a store is required to be owned and operated by an Oklahoma optometrist who would lease the space from the retailer. The sales of glasses and contacts are done in a separate area by store employees.

23-year rollout

Even if the bill passes the legislature in its current form and is signed into law by Governor Kevin Stitt, rural Oklahomans will still be waiting a long time before they see an optometrist in their local big box store. The legislation includes a staggered rollout based on population. Retailers would be allowed to offer optometry services as soon as Nov. 1 of this year in counties with populations higher than 300,000, but the most rural will have to wait until 2042.