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Commit to Advocacy for Your Future

It’s time to get involved: pick the level of support best for you

dr whitesell
Dr. Whitesell

No matter how busy Rasika Whitesell, OD, is as a mom and owner of Port City Optometry, her practice in Wilmington, North Carolina, she always finds time to stay involved in the legislation of the profession. She found her passion for advocacy in the North Carolina Optometric Society’s (NCOS) leadership program, which was a pivotal moment in her career as an OD. “That experience got me fired up about optometry and its legislation,” she says. “You can find out how it really effected, and it’s driven my passion in keeping our rights current in our state and fighting for future rights. We are trying to push the profession forward, but we have to play defense, too.”

Dr. Whitesell says that are a few reasons behind her “why” and motivation for volunteering with the NCOS: her two sons, her practice and her ability to provide care to the fullest scope for her patients. She serves as the state affairs trustee for the NCOS, and from 2020 through 2022, she held the position of Southeastern district president.

In her current role, she connects monthly with 10 grassroots coordinators, one for each district in North Carolina. The volunteer ODs in each district stay in touch with local legislators, maintaining a very important symbiotic relationship. The ODs keep the legislators informed of important advances in the profession, while legislators can turn back to their trusted ODs when they have a question about eye care in legislation.

The amount of time ODs can give may vary throughout the timeline of their career, and the many different opportunities to get involved can allow each OD to decide what commitment is best for each phase. Dr. Whitesell shares these examples with Women In Optometry, which makes it accessible to get involved no matter how much time you have to give.

PICK YOUR LEVEL OF COMMITMENT

Donate to a political action committee (PAC). Don’t have any time to give right now? Dr. Whitesell says that the easiest way to get involved is to donate to the American Optometric Association PAC or to one for your local or state optometry organization. You can designate a recurring, monthly donation, and the amount will automatically be donated without any additional effort. Every dollar helps, so pick an amount that makes sense for you. Through the NCOS leadership program, many ODs decided to pledge the amount of their age and increase that contribution each year. It’s a donation that will help better the profession and keep current rights, she explains.

Overall, Dr. Whitesell has seen that many states have low contribution rates to PAC; in her state, only about 14 percent of ODs donate to the fund. “The only way we can push to better our scope is to support the legislators who are supporting you,” she says. “We can do this if we push forward the legislators who are supporting us.”

Stay in the loop. Stay educated and be aware of what’s happening in your state. It’s not unusual to find language limiting or minimizing the scope of optometrists attached to bills where it wouldn’t be expected. “Optometry as a legislative profession and if we don’t have those connections with legislators, things that can easily get slipped into bills that can hurt us,” Dr. Whitesell says. This is where those grassroots connections are so important. She references the 2022 House bill, related to sprinklers and family dwellings, which also inserted language about optometrists and opticians. Because North Carolina legislators had connections with ODs in their district, they reached out when they saw language that was trying to negate the profession of opticianry and change their license requirements. Some deeper digging revealed that the group making claims was deceiving, and the language was ultimately removed. (Read more about it in this archived story from Vision Monday.)

Other important instances to note include Senate Bill 230 in Florida that stated that optometrists could not call themselves physicians even though they have a four-year doctorate degree, while this rule did not apply to other professions such as podiatry and dentists. This bill was vetoed by Governor DeSantis.

And last year, in April 2023, North Carolina had a similar House Bill 576 that stated it would not allow optometrists to advertise or represent themselves as doctors if it passed. Dr. Jamie Casper and Dr. Whitesell talked to 11 legislators on the state’s Legislative Day to be sure that they added the word “medical” in front of “doctors.” “Optometrists don’t want to be called medical doctors—because we aren’t,” but it’s wrong to say they can’t be doctors with a doctorate degree. Dr. Whitesell says this legislation is still not dead even a year later, but they are keeping it on their radar.

The details and language are so important because it could impact optometry’s scope of care in the state. “If we are stripped of our rights to treat glaucoma, it does a lot to our profession. It’s things like this that we need to be aware of and why we need to get people involved,” Dr. Whitesell says. “Young ODs need to get involved and active; they don’t always know how much this plays a role in what we do.”

Volunteer as a keyperson. Dr. Whitesell says that the time commitment as a keyperson is low, but a great way to get out and make connections. Set a reminder on your calendar to call or text your legislator once a month to stay in touch, and a few times a year, arrange an occasional in-person meeting for lunch or coffee to keep them updated on the profession of optometry. Send a happy birthday message or thank you card, and they always remember you, she says. “They know that they have an OD that they can call,” she says.

Take on a larger role. Start by attending your local or state meetings, and if you are ready for a bigger commitment, there are so many roles to fill from trustee to district president. These are all volunteer positions and provide excellent leadership opportunities. Consider attending your state’s legislative day. Dr. Whitesell also encourages ODs to pursue their state leadership programs, such as the one that is offered by the NCOS.

PROTECT THE PROFESSION THROUGH ADVOCACY

Dr. Whitesell shares her experience so that other ODs will understand the importance of legislation and help their states with advocacy goals. Currently, the NCOS is focused on building up donations so they can continue to push for scope expansion, which helps promote access to care to so many in their communities. “It’s hard to get in with ophthalmologists; some patients have to wait months to have access to that care,” she says. “We are trained in optometry school to do these procedures, and we are not able to because of laws. It’s hurting our patients at the end of the day.”

But this is a process that takes time and patience. The speaker of the house in her state has not been the friendliest proponent for the optometry profession, she says, and as he steps down this year, Dr. Whitesell is hopeful for the new candidates. “If we don’t have the right people in our corner, we will get denied,” she says. “We don’t want to do invasive eye surgery; we want to do the simple procedures to help our patients long-term.”

Dr. Whitesell made an Instagram Reel with action points for ODs in April 2023, following the issues arising with Senate Bill 230 in Florida.

 

Connect with Dr. Whitesell on Instagram @missindianeyedoc

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