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Politics

Record Sums Pour In, As Optometrists Ready For Big Fight in Tallahassee

March 27, 2017 - 6:00am

Optometrists are now among the largest donors to political causes in Florida, according to state tax filings.

The eye-care specialists, who are not medical doctors, have amassed a war chest of more than $2.1 million and hired the brother of Florida’s Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and other legendary lobbyists, to spearhead their efforts. Often using a collection of interlocking groups to move money from anonymous sources, the optometrists are boosting candidates who favor their cause while winning the ire of their rivals, the ophthalmologists, and transparency activists who decry their use of “dark money.”
 
Their opponents, medical doctors known as ophthalmologists, have raised a comparative pittance. Since 2013, FOCUS, one of the ophthalmologist’s PACs, has taken in $143,064. Another PAC, FOCUS EYEMED, raised $97,764, according to government reports. These PACs together raised less than one-tenth of the money raised by optometrists.
 
“A lot of ophthalmologists in the state won’t join the Florida Society of Ophthalmology because they worry about losing their referrals from optometrists,” said Dr. William Mallon of Vero Beach. “We are having to go hat-in-hand to our national organization to get some money, but we can’t possibly catch up.”

For optometrists, the pace of fundraising is constant. In a promotional video on the website of the Florida Optometric Association, April Jasper, looks directly into the camera and asks for money for the optometrists’ political-action committee. 


“Not only do we need you to be a member of the Florida Optometric Association, but there is another way we need you to be involved, and that is by donating to our PAC,” said Jasper, “It is important to us to have that separate piece always active and always being contributed to.”
 
Florida’s war between optometrists and ophthalmologists has raged for decades. The optometrists have increasingly sought the prerogative to perform surgical tasks, for which 47 states (including Florida) require a medical degree.
 
Then-Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, declared “the eyeball wars have ended,” after optometrists won the right to prescribe seven different prescription drugs in 2013. In fact, it was only a lull between rounds. After a few years of quiet but determined fundraising the optometrists are back.

Now their new push is a series of bills in the Florida legislature that would allow optometrists to expand their scope of care to perform new procedures such as laser eye surgeries.

The number of politically active non-profits in Florida has doubled from 67 to 155 since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010, according to research by MapLight, a non-profit that promotes political transparency.

“The Florida Optometry Eye Health Fund had the highest revenues during the previous tax year among 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations based in Florida,” said ‎Laura Curlin, the data director at MapLight.
 
The fund raised $799,162 in 2016, which includes money for political activities, tax records show. Money collected by the Florida Optometry Eye Heath Fund Inc. is often later transferred to the Florida Optometric CCE, another lobbying group for optometrists.
 
In addition to hiring Michael Corcoran, the brother of Florida’s current speaker of the House, the optometrist lobby has hedged its bets.  The political action committee of Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, who is set to be speaker in the 2018-2020 legislative session, has already received $50,000 from a PAC associated with optometrists, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
 
The ties between the Florida Board of Optometry and its PAC are intertwined. Stephen Kepley, a Vero Beach optometrist, is a member of the Florida Board of Optometry. Tax records also list Stephen Kepley as a director of the Florida Optometry Eye Health Fund Inc., the optometrists’ non-profit arm.
 
The optometrists’ political-action committee, OD-EYEPAC, collects money from both the optometrists’ trade association and its non-profit arm. The Florida Optometric Association donated $535,000 to OD-EYEPAC while the Florida Optometric Eye Health Care Fund gave them $260,000 in 2016, according to FloridaPolitics.com. Slightly more than half of the $2.1 million total that optometrists gave to candidates in the past election came through OD-EYEPAC.
 
The efforts don’t stop at the ballot box.  Lobbyists are raking in money from optometrists, fourth-quarter 2016 financial disclosures from prominent lobbyists show.
Bill Rubin of the Rubin Group received between $20,000 and $29,000 from Florida Optometry Eye Care Fund in the fourth quarter of 2016. The Florida Optometric Association also paid as much as $9,999 to that group.
 
The Florida Optometry Eye Care Fund paid Corcoran & Johnston, the lobbying and advocacy firm which employs Michael Corcoran some $56,000 and David Ramba’s company, the Ramba Consulting Group, between $30,000-$39,000, according to fourth-quarter 2016 disclosures required by state law.
 
Lobbyist David Ramba cuts a large figure in the state capital. Ramba attended a dinner at Shula’s 347 Grill, one of Tallahassee’s most expensive steakhouses in 2013. The dinner was organized by six Republican state senators and the head of the Florida Optometry Association to thank Ramba for his work on optometry legislation. When a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times questioned if the meeting violated state ethics rules, the senators denied discussing politics.
 
One of the attendees was former State Senator Garrett Richter, a Republican, who was then a frequent passenger on Capital Air, a private plane company owned by Ramba, who is both a lawyer and a licensed pilot. Often the lobbyist would take the controls as he flew distant lawmakers to and from the state capital, which one lawmaker jokingly referred to the operation as “Ramba Air.”
 
The close ties between lobbyists and elected officials is worrisome, say opponents of the optometrist’s legislative agenda.
 
“When Kentucky passed similar legislation in 2014, it was because there were similar close ties between legislators and lobbyists,” said Dan Briceland, a spokesperson for the American Academy for Ophthalmology. “The legislation was passed in just 11 days without much debate and what limited debate there was occurred because [U.S. Senator] Rand Paul (a licensed ophthalmologist) got involved.”
 
The ophthalmologists said they are being outspent and out-dazzled by major lobbyists like Ramba, just as the state capital readies for the biggest fight between optometrists and ophthalmologists that it has ever seen.
 
“We are outgunned up there in Tallahassee when it comes to lobbying,” said Jamie Membreno, a Kissimmee ophthalmologist. “Both in terms of money and the special relationships that optometry lobby has developed with well-placed politicians. There are more optometrists and they raise more money.”


This feature is the first in a series.

Click here to read the complete SSN and American Media Institute special series.

Comments

I'm not sure why our Optometry leadership keeps on pushing for surgical rights. I am an Optometrist and have no desire whatsoever to perform eye surgery. I didn't enter Optometry school with the preconceived notion that I wanted to cut into eyeballs. Leave that to the OMDs. We really don't have the training to perform these procedures. But we do get good training on primary eye care services and that should be our focus. Leave the complicated stuff to the OMDs! I wish our Optometry leadership would stop "stirring the pot" so much with this push for surgical privileges that most of us Optometrists don't even want and our patients don't need. Instead, our leadership should be concentrating on stopping new Optometry schools from opening up which is causing a massive oversupply of ODs which is making everyone desperate for their piece of the pie.

Have you ever read the catalog of requirements and course study for a College of Optometry? Probably not because they restrict distribution. I was able to obtain a catalog and was suprised that entry requirement is minimal. The course study was standard for refraction, lens physics, etc but the ONLY "medical course" was pharmacology which was only recently introduced. There were NO COURSES ON SURGERY ! and of course no hospital nor hands on training. SO, THE O.D.'S FEEL THAT ONLY A 30 HOUR COURSE WILL QUALIFY THEM FOR SURGICAL PRIVILEGES! I GUESS MY INTERNSHIP, RESIDENCY TRAINING AND POST-GRADUATE TRAINING TAKING YEARS WERE ALL IN VAIN. I trust some legislator will read my note and reconsider his position in granting untrained individuals the right to perform eye surgery. Of course, some skilled M.D. will fix the botched O.D. surgery after consideration of the patient's possible loss of vision!

Yes, optometrists should absolutely be allowed to operate on humans......all they need to do is go to medical school for four years to earn an MD degree and then work a minimum of four years in post graduate internship and residency training in hospitals, then pass a rigorous series of written and oral board exams.....just like medical doctors and surgeons do. Or they could just pay a bunch of money to a handful of lobbyists and legislators and have them decreed to be qualified to operate on people. The patients will be the real losers here. It is truly pathetic that this is even being debated- the optometrists - it is a limited, vocal few who push this agenda- lobbyists and legislators should all be ashamed of themselves.

This last election cycle was mostly about the slime in politics, big chunks of the electorate was whining about the two bad choices. Well , the slime fest goes on with these Florida politicians. Thank you for bringing light to this creepy side of health and politics! It seems the Optometrists just want to legislate ( buy) and huge upgrade , and patients like me will be cut and peeled like a line cook in a garage.....typical Florida slime . I remember the creeps doing this in their garage, no difference , just now the optometrists are legalizing it!! ouch . Money is king , ughh?

What is wrong with seizing the opportunity to use the system and increase our income, at the end of the day if the ophthalmologists are not savvy to prevent this , it is just an opening of for us. Patients won't necessarily know any difference, especially because it is the board of optometry who will be regulating , not the board of medicine. Smart politics! Let the chips fall where they go, the emergency rooms can hallway stake the emergencies and complications.

What's next ? NOVA institute of Orthopedic surgery, yes! I am applying to PA school and I can't wait......... ps . The ROI is incredible, less time, less cash investment ... nice... I hope the PA lobby is all over this $.

Are you talking about independent PA's? is that next?

The bottom line is that optometrists want to use the "lack of access" argument to perform elective surgery. Since when is an Yag capsulotomy or an SLT an emergency? And Laser Iridotomies are way beyond their paygrade. The next step is refractive surgery privileges. You know, they want to do a non covered, elective procedure using the Medicaid "lack of access" bullcrap. Again, non covered means cash only. These people are snake oil salesmen.

If it's good and gives money all people wants to do. If it's not good, it's a medical problem. What doctors do? When you change quallity for better prices in medicine you lose them both (more access to pacient to surgeries: esquerdist quote)

Every profession grows..Medicine today has evolved through so many stages so is optometry..If optometrists want to go into surgery is because they want to increase patients assess to surgeries..When allowed optometrists will be trained and will be capable of performing surgeries..In the end patients will be satisfied..Long live optometry..I am a proud optometrist .Keep soaring Florida optometrists

Florida has more eye surgeons per capita than anywhere in the world. There is no demonstrable "lack of access"

Dr Membreno and other ophthalmologists complain that they are "outgunned" in Tallahassee, but is only because they are not willing to buy the "guns" to get in the game. If you want to play football, you will need to buy a helmet and shoulder pads. Otherwise, you are not a player, you are a spectator, and spectators never win a game. Politics is no different. It is a game with a level playing field, but some doctors don't want to play because they think it is a rigged or dirty game. It isn't, but it is a game and the doctors who don't want to play, who want to be spectators should just sit down and shut up, don't Boo and complain. The optometrists are in the game to win and will win eventually unless the ophthalmologists will suit up, hire the coaches, and get on the field. It is that simple. Get in the game and play to win. Ed Homan, MD Orthopedic Surgeon Tampa, FL FL State House District 60. - 2002-2010

I hope you are as cynical when podiatrist start demanding knee surgery privileges. But you are clearly missing the point. It's not about who can spend more money in politics. It's about a broken, corrupted system that allows for something like this to even happen. This a US-only phenomenon where low level providers want to be MD's by fiat.

It's a shame.

Wow. Lobbyists getting rich while entertaining and flying politicians around -- all at the expense of your eyes which are priceless.

This is just crazy!!! If you're not a medical doctor you shouldn't be performing surgeries on anyone period!

This is a blunder..Not all medical doctors are surgeons for your information...Optometrists are capable of performing surgeries if given the nod after all they are doing well in some states..In the long run is the patient who benefits..This ophthalmologist..optometrist brouhaha only affects patients negatively..Let us expand our knowledge base to help our clients..#longliveoptometry

Optometrists MAY be capable of performing surgeries, that does not mean that that are WELL-TRAINED. Clearly, there is a reason that medical school is 8+ years. Tens of thousands of hours of education and training vs. 1900 hours. Please-there is NO COMPARISON. It is sad that many optometrists take advantage of those patients that just do not understand the difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist. Just because you wear a white coat and have Dr. in front of your name does not give you the right to do surgery because you raised enough money through your PAC to pay off some legislator. Let's hope airline attendants aren't the next to push legislation to bypass flight school.

This is a blunder..Not all medical doctor are surgeons for your information...Optometrists are capable of performing surgeries if given the nod after all they are doing well in some states..In the long run is the patient who benefits..This ophthalmologist..optometrist brouhaha only affects patients negatively..Let us expand our knowledge base to help our clients..#longliveoptometry

What makes one a medical doctor? Are people born with the title. It is jst knowledge and practice. So what stops one from performing surgery bcos he went to optometry school and not medical school. Think deep

You answered you question. Optometrist do not go to med school. It's funny how optometrist always want to tell MD's how similar optometry school is to a training program they never attended.

Not we, just politicians, and those willing to fill their coffers for those special favors called Florida Politics. Really just legalized racketeering...

How rotten we all have become.

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