Optometrists and ophthalmologists aren’t seeing eye to eye these days on the proper role of government. So contentious is the issue that divides them, in fact, that West Virginia legislator Don Perdue says he spent 16 hours locked in his office “trying to keep (them) from clawing each others’ eyeballs out.”

The focus of their ire is H.R. 451, the so-called Healthcare Truth and Transparency Act of 2011—the title of which, like a great deal of federal legislation, masks malignant intentions as benign. Introduced in January by Representative John Sullivan (R–OK) on behalf of ophthalmologists, the bill would force “health care services” (by which Sullivan means “optometrists”) to disclose in all advertising their licensing status and empower the Federal Trade Commission to police them.

If enacted, the law would effectively require a disclaimer by optometrists that they do not hold medical degrees. That’s precisely the point the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) is most eager to promote in light of a supposed “epidemic of parallel professionalism.”

As the AAO sees it, optometrists are encroaching on medical procedures, with potentially devastating consequences. Patients are supposedly blind to the differences in skills and training between the two groups, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of optometric dangers.

Optometrists have indeed expanded their practices to include dispensing some oral medications, topical ointments, and injections. But only two states—Oklahoma and Kentucky—allow limited laser procedures despite campaigns in dozens of states to allow it.

Proponents of H.R. 451 evidently overlook the fact that optometry is already heavily regulated by state boards that determine the proper scope of practice—just as state medical boards do—while state and federal laws regulate health care advertising.

Thus, it’s all too easy to see that this legislation is less about protecting public health than about protecting the MDs’ monopoly and criminalizing competition.

Sullivan has been unduly persistent in his efforts to assist the AAO, having introduced similar legislation in three prior sessions. Thankfully, his colleagues have seen through the legislative guise. Rather than adding to the nation’s torrent of red tape, Johnson and his allies ought to be eyeing ways to reduce unnecessary regulatory barriers of all types.

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