Originally created 03/01/97

Health measure passes



ATLANTA - Eye doctors, who contributed heavily to the campaigns of well-placed Senate leaders last year, are counting on Senate legislation to expand their clientele.

A Senate-approved bill, now pending in the House, would force health maintenance organizations and other managed care plans to let patients visit an eye care specialist without first going through a family doctor.

The Georgia Optometric Association complains that money-conscious health plans prevent optometrists from seeing thousands of patients a year because they technically are not "medical doctors."

A bill forcing HMOs to give their patients a choice of eye care professionals whenever available is being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta.

A former chairman of the Senate health care committee, Mr. Walker accepted at least 17 campaign contributions totaling $4,950 from optometrists and eye clinics last year, disclosure reports show. Mr. Walker did not have any re-election opposition.

His boss in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, reported taking $7,000 from eye doctors for his 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

Eye doctors are not normally heavy hitters in state campaigns, but were among the largest donors to the Walker and Howard funds. Both dollar figures may be higher, because some donors do not report details about their occupations.

Mr. Walker said Friday he wasn't aware eye doctors were such a large share of his and Mr. Howard's financial backers, and that their contributions had no connection to the bill."It never crossed my mind," he said. "These HMOs and insurance companies give out lots of money, too. They just lost and they're mad."

Walker's bill passed the Senate 36-16 last week, but HMO lobbyists hope to stall its progress in the House.

"This is another one in a series of mandates that is going to drive up rates and create a whole new class of uninsured Georgians," said Betsey Weltner, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Managed Care, an HMO trade association. "It's all because of these mandates the legislature keeps passing at the behest of special interests."}

Mr. Walker said the measure puts optometrists on equal footing with other specialists who've been granted preferred status by the General Assembly in years past, such as dermatologists and obstetricians.

Patients covered by managed care plans are allowed to see those specialists without going through a family doctor first. HMOs use general-practice physicians as "gatekeepers" to cut down on unnecessary visits to higher-cost specialists.

"The state has said we can do everything except surgery," said Georgianne Bearden, chief lobbyist for the optometric association. "We are trying to get our patients access to us, because we have been cut off."

Although the bill, could mean more business for eye specialists, Bearden described the issue as one of patient access and choice, especially for small-town patients where the only eye expert in town is an optometrist.

HMOs would still be allowed to exclude eye doctors who charge too much or perform poorly, but would have to accept qualified optometrists or ophthalmologists as part of their panel of providers, Bearden said.

She said she was unaware eye doctors had made substantial campaign contributions or increased their level of political activity in recent months.