Optometrist battle puts DeLeo in hot seat

Governor Charlie Baker (left) supports the legislation, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s feelings on the bill are unclear.
Governor Charlie Baker (left) supports the legislation, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s feelings on the bill are unclear.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2017/Boston Globe

Massachusetts optometrists are taking to the airwaves to make another hard charge at stalled legislation that would allow them to treat glaucoma and other eye conditions that now require an ophthalmologist.

They may as well have an audience of one — House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, who is trying to use his political muscle within his chamber’s leadership to again quash the legislation that has already passed the State Senate and is backed by Governor Charlie Baker.

The intriguing political question is whether Mariano’s close political ally and trusted friend, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, will hold the line for him on an issue about which the majority leader has strong feelings.


The optometrists’ latest move is to pressure the House to go along with a Senate budget amendment that gives them the right to treat certain eye ailments, a change that they say would save the state $20 million. The group’s $25,000 worth of radio ads will run for 10 days.

The ads come just as Baker is trying to turn up the heat on the House over that bill. It is among several legislative proposals to expand the “scope of practice” for acupuncturists, physical therapists, and dental hygienists.

But Mariano made clear this week he is not budging in his opposition, saying that the expansion of “scope of practice” proposals — which he has fought for years — are nothing but money-grabs by medical professionals who want to perform special procedures for which they are not qualified. Optometrists, who are not medical doctors, must now refer glaucoma cases and other eye conditions to ophthalmologists.

For Mariano, the point is simple: it’s an important medical practice decision that shouldn’t be decided by politicians voting in the state House and Senate.

“We should not be making health care decisions like this politically,’’ the Quincy Democrat said.


The Massachusetts Medical Society and Massachusetts Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons also oppose the legislation. Forty-nine other states allow optometrists to perform such procedures as giving eye drops for glaucoma.

But medical debate aside, the legislation is teeing up an interesting internal political dynamic in the House. Specifically, how long will DeLeo stand behind his majority leader?

For his part, DeLeo is not saying how he sees it.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.