As Oklahoma’s November elections come into focus, large retail companies are boosting efforts to back a state question that would allow eye doctors to practice in their stores.
State Question 793, if approved, would expand where optometrists and opticians can practice and sell eye care products, allowing them to operate in big box retail stores.
Supporters of the amendment say the state’s current law is outdated and updating it would make eye care more affordable and accessible. However, opponents of the amendment say SQ 793 will lower eye care standards and only benefit corporations.
Oklahoma is one of three states that does not allow eye care and optical providers to operate in those locations. If the amendment is approved, retailers such as Walmart, Target and Costco could open eye care practices inside of their stores.
Yes On 793, a political action committee that formed on May 25, has raised about $131,000, with the bulk of those contributions coming from Walmart and Costco, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission filings.
Another $50,000 came from Oklahomans For Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit group that does not have to disclose its donors. The group also supported the state’s initiative to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores and refrigerated beer in liquor stores. It spent about $700,000 in 2016 mostly geared toward advocating the measure’s passage. That initiative passed in 2016 and goes into effect in October.
Walmart has given the Yes on 793 PAC nearly $66,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions. Anne Hatfield, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said customers in Oklahoma have voiced a desire for eye care centers inside of stores.
“Patients tell us they want that convenience — having high-quality, yet affordable eye care and eye wear while they shop,” she said.
The company has eye care centers in 47 states, Hatfield said.
A spokeswoman for Costco declined to comment.
Tim Tippit is president and CFO of the Edmond-based DaVinci Equity Group, an optical retailer with seven vision centers in Michigan and Ohio. He said if the initiative passes he will bring his business to Oklahoma. He said it’s time for the state to “modernize” its laws.
“(Oklahoma is) set apart now because we’re not like the rest of the county,” Tippit said. “It gives consumers a choice in where they want to get their eye care provider.”
The measure also would allow the market to be competitive, letting customers choose care that’s most affordable to them, he said.
The PAC Oklahomans Against SQ 793 has raised more than $1.4 million since it formed in February. The majority of those donations came from individual eye care providers.
Joel Robison is the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians, which opposes SQ 793. He said the proposed amendment is not about providing cheaper eye care, but would instead “lower the standards” of eye care in Oklahoma.
“Walmart is attempting to put new language in our constitution that basically benefits their corporate model,” Robison said.
Robison said he believes the state question, if passed, would permit Walmart to dictate how its optometrists practice, allowing providers to surpass important exams, such as checking for the eye disease glaucoma.
“Walmart will be able to tell optometrists what exams they will give and how many patients they need to get through,” he said. “That limits their practice. Right now the only people who tell our optometrists what they should be doing is our board of examiners.
“If this were to pass, these employment contracts would take precedence over what our board of examiners say.”
Tippit disputed that claim and said the amendment would not affect the quality of eye care.
“The optometrist that will be practicing, whether independent, my store or Walmart, is still required to have the same licensing standards as a private practitioner,” he said.
“The fact is, patients will receive the same quality care just with more access and affordability,” she said. The retailers lease the space with individual licensed optometrists who will run their practices how they see fit.”
The state question will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.