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Legislature

Senate Health Committee bill advances despite clash between ophthalmologists, optometrists

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Senate Health Committee last week narrowly voted to give a favorable report to a bill that would allow Alabama optometrists to expand their scope of practice to include seven procedures that are currently performed exclusively by ophthalmologists.

Senate Bill 66 is sponsored by State Senator Tom Whatley (R-Auburn).

Whatley said that he has eye issues and has been treated by both ophthalmologists and optometrists over the years. This bill would improve access to care for people in rural Alabama.

Ophthalmologists are doctors who have been to medical school and have chosen to specialize in eyes. Optometrists are doctors who have to optometry school to study treating conditions of the eye.

The Chairman of the Senate Health Committee is Senator Jim McClendon, R-Springville. McClendon is an optometrist and is a cosponsor of the legislation.

The bill would expand the scope of practice of optometrists to perform: injections, excluding injections into the posterior chamber of the eye to treat any macular or retinal disease; incision and removal of a chalazion; removal and biopsy of skin lesions involving the lid and adnexa; laser capsulotomy; laser trabeculoplasty; laser peripheral iridotomy; and corneal crosslinking.

Ophthalmologists like Dr. Chris Girkin Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Alabama oppose the bill.

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Optometrists support expanding their scope of practice to include these procedures, which currently are only performed by the ophthalmologists. The ophthalmologists and the Alabama Medical Association oppose expanding the scope of practice of the optometrists. These medical doctors say their objection are relayed to patient safety not a turf war between professions.

A similar bill was defeated in the legislature last year. That bill, also sponsored by Sen. Whatley, would have expanded the scope of practice for the optometrists to make those seven procedures. That bill also would have allowed optometrists to perform LASIK surgeries and make injections into the posterior chamber of the eye to treat conditions, such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. LASIK “laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis” is the most commonly performed laser eye surgery to treat myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) and astigmatism.

Chairman McClendon said that the optometrists have dropped the LASIK surgeries and the injections into the posterior chamber of the eye. McClendon said that the optometrists have offered to compromise and the ophthalmologists have refused to accept any expansion of the current scope of practice for optometrists.

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Whatley said that SB66 would expand healthcare options for Alabamians particularly rural Alabamians. There are ophthalmologists in just 24 Alabama counties while 57 counties are served by optometrists.

Dr. Brendan Wyatt said, “I am a board-certified ophthalmologist and Vice president of the Association of Ophthalmologists. I practice in Dallas County.”

Dr. Wyatt said that SB66 would be, “Giving non-surgeons the ability to perform surgery on our poorest most vulnerable citizens.”

Wyatt disputed that there was an “Access to care problem. That is not true.”

Wyatt said that the optometrists said that the information provided by the optometrists, “Shows Autauga County as not having an ophthalmologist. I pay $2000 a month for a satellite office there.”

Wyatt said that another ophthalmologist has a satellite office in Marengo County. “You guys have been fed false information. We did our own research using Medicare billing data. Over 91 percent of our population is within a 30 minute drive to an ophthalmologist and 98 percent are within an hour drive to an ophthalmologist.

Wyatt took, “Issue with this being safe and no harm will be done. These lasers cause controlled explosions in your eyeball.” “I implore you to do the right thing and kill this bill.”

McClendon said that optometrists are being trained how to do all of these procedures in optometrist school and that Alaska, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma all already allow optometrists to perform these procedures.

Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said, “I want to make sure that we don’t do something that ham string us going forward.”

Dr. Josh Driver is an optometrist and the immediate past president of the Alabama Optometric Association.

Dr. Driver said that passing SB66, “Would improve access to care for thousands of Alabamians.”

“This bill would address some of the open ended questions in the bill last year,” Driver said. “These are seven in office procedures that do not require anesthesia.” All of them are being taught in optometry school. UAB is graduating optometrists and they are leaving our state for states where they can better practice their profession. This is about improving access to optometry care for all of Alabamians not just those who live in a major city.

Dr. Chris Girkin is the Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Alabama.

Girkin said that he is currently researching model of providing access to care for rural Alabama more effectively through other models including telehealth that can be done without increasing the scope of practice of optometrists.

Dr. Girkin warned that if this bill passes then every optometrist will add a laser to their practice and up to 20 percent of their patients could be negatively impacted.

Dr. Rob Pate, an optometrist, told the Alabama Political Reporter that medical doctors spend time learning to birth babies and do all of the things that they do before deciding what they want to specialize in. We spend all of our education studying the eye and conditions of the eye.

McClendon said that there are quite a few scope of practice bill that are ready to come forward soon. All of these bills were killed last year by the Alabama Medical Association who doesn’t want to compromise on anything.

The legislature limits the scope of practice of optometrists, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, chiropractors, nurse midwives, lay mid-wives , etc. Many of these professions want expanded scopes of practice.

Whatley made a motion to give a favorable report to the bill. There were several ayes. McClendon did not ask for nays and said the ayes have it. This meeting is adjourned.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said that he wanted it on the record that he is opposed to this.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, said that Robert’s rules of Order were violated in the vote.

SB66 now can be considered by the full Alabama Senate.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Corruption

Arrest warrant issued for Rep. Will Dismukes for felony theft

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been accused of theft of property, a Class B felony. (WSFA)

An arrest warrant has been issued for Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for felony theft from a business where he worked, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said Thursday.

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018, Bailey said during a press conference.

Bailey said the charge is a Class B felony and levied when a person steals in excess of $2,500 and that “I will tell you that the alleged amount is a lot more than that.” 

“The warrant has just been signed, his attorney has been notified and we are giving him until late this afternoon to turn himself in,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the employer contacted the district attorney’s office with a complaint about the theft on May 20, and after reviewing bank records and interviewing witnesses, the decision was made to charge Dismukes with the theft. 

WSFA reported Thursday that the theft occurred at Dismukes’ former employer, Weiss Commercial Flooring Inc. in East Montgomery. Bailey did not provide any more specifics on the charge but said the employer signed the arrest warrant after countless hours of investigation on the part of the DA’s office.

While the charge stems from a complaint filed months ago, Dismukes been in the headlines recently and faced a torrent of calls for his resignation in recent weeks after posting to Facebook an image of himself attending a birthday celebration for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

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The event was hosted by an individual with close ties to the League of the South, a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response, Dismukes stepped down from his post as a pastor at an Autauga County Baptist church but defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature.

If convicted of the felony, Dismukes would be immediately removed from his seat in the Alabama House, to which he was elected in 2018.

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In June, the Alabama Democratic Party called for his resignation over previous social media posts glorifying the Confederacy.

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Legislature

Groups call for Rep. Will Dismukes to resign, state Legislature to address racist policies

The Montgomery nonprofit Alabama Arise, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries in a joint statement on Friday called for Dismukes’ resignation and for the state Legislature to address systemic, racially-oppressive policies.

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, shared a post on Facebook after a birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Three groups joined the chorus of calls for state Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, to resign for attending an event celebrating the birthday of the Klu Klux Klan’s first grand wizard. 

The Montgomery nonprofit Alabama Arise, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries in a joint statement on Friday called for Dismukes’ resignation and for the state Legislature to address systemic, racially-oppressive policies.

“Our elected officials and appointed leaders should respect the full dignity, worth and humanity of all people they represent. We urge all political parties and public officials to acknowledge the harm that white supremacy continues to inflict upon Alabama. And we call upon them to dismantle white supremacist structures through intentional policy changes,” the groups said in the statement. 

Dismukes attended a birthday celebration for Nathanial Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, then posted a photo of himself at the event to his Facebook page, which he has since either deleted or made private. 

Dismukes later told WSFA that he won’t apologize for his family’s service in the “war between the states” that he said wasn’t primarily fought over slavery, that he’s not a racist but that he doesn’t see the need for the current racial reconciliation. 

State Sen Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, on Monday called for his resignation, as has the Alabama Democratic Party. 

“The cause of white supremacy permeates our state’s fundamental governing document. When the president of the 1901 constitutional convention, John Knox, was asked why Alabama needed a new constitution, his answer was clear: ‘to establish white supremacy in this state,’” the three groups said in the statement. 

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“Any celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Ku Klux Klan – a white supremacist terrorist organization – is contrary to the values that Alabamians expect from our leaders, elected officials and neighbors. In celebrating Forrest, Rep. Will Dismukes revealed he is unable or unwilling to represent the best interests of his constituents and his state. We condemn his actions in the strongest possible terms. We also understand this is not the first time Dismukes has celebrated the Confederacy or Forrest in such a manner. Therefore, we join with many other individuals and organizations across Alabama in calling for Dismukes to resign immediately,” the statement continues. 

The groups say the need for racial justice and healing reaches beyond any one individual, and called for all elected officials to look at their actions and the impacts of policy decisions. The groups point to the 2017 Memorial Preservation Act, which prevents municipalities from removing Confederate monuments or face steep fines. 

“Lawmakers’ failure to expand Medicaid leaves a disproportionate share of African Americans without health insurance during a pandemic. And the absence of racial impact data prevents communities and legislators from evaluating the full effects of state policy choices,” the statement continues. 

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The groups in the statement highlight the following disparities: 

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Legislature

Dismukes resigns as pastor, refuses to step down as state lawmaker

Josh Moon

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State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, shared a post on Facebook after a birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Embattled State Rep. Will Dismukes has resigned as pastor of a Baptist church but defiantly declared that he has no plans to step down from the state Legislature. 

The Alabama Baptist, an online and print news source for Baptists around the state, reported on Thursday that Dismukes had agreed to step down from Pleasant Hill Baptist Church following heavy criticism from lawmakers and citizens around the state over Dismukes’ decision to attend and give the invocation at a birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. 

“Immediate effort was made to connect with Will on behalf of our leadership with commitment toward a biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue,” Mel Johnson, a mission strategist for the Autauga Baptist Association and a deacon at Pleasant Hill Baptist, told the Alabama Baptist. “He was open and receptive to our call and subsequent in-person meeting on Tuesday afternoon (July 28).”

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser on Thursday morning, however, Dismukes, a freshman lawmaker from Prattville, said he had no plans to step down from the Legislature. Both Democrats and Republicans, including Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who is Dismukes’ senator, have called for Dismukes to resign. He is not up for re-election until 2022. 

Dismukes’ Facebook post, which went up the same day the state was honoring Civil Rights hero John Lewis, showed him speaking at the Forrest event. The backlash from around the state was swift and severe. 

Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, told the Alabama Baptist, “We are saddened and grieved to learn of the recent Facebook post by state Rep. Will Dismukes. … In the wake of tremendous controversy, we reaffirm our opposition to any kind of racism.”

The day after his controversial post, Dismukes participated in an interview with WSFA-TV in Montgomery to offer an explanation but seemingly made things worse for himself. In the interview, he blamed the backlash on “cancel culture” and expressed surprise over the outrage. 

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Immediately following the interview, Chambliss issued his call for Dismukes to step down.

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Elections

Donna Strong seeks Republican nomination in House District 49

Brandon Moseley

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Republican State House candidate Donna Strong

Donna Strong is touting her experience as an educator in her bid to win the Republican nomination for Alabama House District 49 special election. Strong is a veteran educator with 31 years of teaching experience at the middle, high school and college levels. She hopes to bring that experience and educational knowledge to the Alabama House of Representatives, she said.

“Most Alabamians don’t realize the degree to which politics controls our public education system,” Strong said in a statement. “When everything from class sizes, curriculum programs, school calendars, lunchroom menus, educator salaries, and standardized testing are legislatively mandated, public schooling is largely dictated by career politicians who have never walked in a teacher, bus driver or cafeteria worker’s shoes.”

Strong said that she wants to cut wasteful spending and see curricula implemented that will help all students learn to think critically, communicate clearly and solve problems in their everyday lives now and for their future. Strong said that she believes health and safety resources should be significantly enhanced for students.

“Educators at all grade levels have seen an increase in the number of students who come to school with mental health or behavioral problems,” Strong explained. “Learning is just too challenging when children are depressed, scared or angry. Every school should have a qualified nurse and easy access to trained mental health professionals.”

Strong said that she will make enhancing infrastructure in District 49 a high priority.

“The events of the past several months have brought a new awareness of the critical dependence we all have for a strong and stable economy,” Strong continued,. Safe roads, effective schools, accessible local health care, and adequately funded police and fire departments are the key elements to encourage both small and large business growth. As a state we also need to continue to upgrade 5G (5th Generation) wireless so that every student and every worker has fast and reliable access to the online resources they need to succeed. As a legislator, I will always focus on these important local and state issues for every citizen in District 49.”

Strong grew up in Shelby County. She was a member of 4-H and later was on both the Auburn University Livestock and Dairy judging teams.

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“I always enjoyed the time we spent visiting and practicing at farms throughout Alabama,” she said. “Agriculture is still a very important way of life for many Alabamians and this industry needs to be fully funded and supported.”

Strong is a science teacher, nature enthusiast and animal lover. Strong says that she is dedicated to protecting our environment.

“From the scenic mountains of north Alabama to the beautiful beaches of our southern coast, we have one of the most biodiverse states in the country,” Strong said. “Some Alabama plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. And importantly, our unique and picturesque landscapes are critical to the people and jobs that depend on the tourism driven by our beautiful landscapes.”

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Strong said that she wants to encourage community recycling programs and see tougher sanctions on companies and individuals who harm the environment.

Strong is a graduate of Chelsea High School. She has a bachelor’s degree in science and a master’s degree in education from Auburn University. She also has a Ph.D. from Penn State University.

She and her husband Russell live in Alabaster. They have two children.

In addition to Strong, Russell Bedsole, James Dean, Chuck Martin, Jackson McNeely and Mimi Penhale are all running in the special Republican primary on Tuesday, Aug. 4. If a Republican runoff election is needed, it will be held on Tuesday, Sep. 1, 2020. The eventual Republican nominee will face Cheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Representative April Weaver, R-Briarfield, announced her resignation to accept an appointment with the Trump administration as a regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

House District 49 consists of portions of Bibb, Shelby and Chilton Counties. The winner will serve the remainder of Weaver’s term which ends in late 2022.

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