All eyes on lobbyists in a rematch over drops

Legislative contest puts Bereano, Cooke at center court again

February 22, 2000|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

The grandfather of all legislative blood feuds is back.

After a five-year hiatus, Maryland's ophthalmologists and optometrists are dueling again over eye drops -- the question of who should be allowed to put what in whose eyes.

And Bruce C. Bereano and Ira C. Cooke, two of the highest profile, highest paid and most flamboyant lobbyists at the State House, are again squaring off on opposite sides of the issue.

"I don't view it as a feud," said Cooke, 53, who has represented the Maryland Optometric Association for 17 years. "I view it as two professionals going at it."

Bereano, 55, who first represented the ophthalmologists in 1981, said, "We're both very, very competitive, and both of us feel strongly about our respective clients' positions."

The two men, who profess to be friendly, represent clients that are all but sworn enemies. On one side are the optometrists, who perform vision tests and prescribe eyeglasses; on the other, the ophthalmologists, physicians specializing in the treatment of eye diseases and disorders.

The two groups, by one estimate, have spent more than $1 million on lobbying the issue over the years.

A bill introduced in the House of Delegates this month would allow the optometrists to administer certain additional drops and drugs. The ophthalmologists have been expecting the legislation.

"It is a never-ending turf battle," Bereano said of the tug of war that dates more than two decades.

But the more the two men talk about the issue, the less clear it becomes whether they are talking about the two warring professional groups or each other.

Arcane section of law

This is a classic contest over an arcane section of Maryland law whose significance is lost on most legislators and the public. It's the sort of battle that seems to be less about the issue than about winning, where personality can overshadow public policy and where each vote begins to look more like a roll-call test of power or loyalty.

In 1988, after a decade of trying to outmaneuver the ophthalmologists, the optometrists appeared to have won, when Cooke managed to push legislation through both houses to allow optometrists to use certain types of diagnostic drops in eye examinations.

Advantage, Mr. Cooke.

But when the bill went to the desk of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, he vetoed it.

Advantage, Mr. Bereano.

When the General Assembly reconvened the following January, the Senate and House of Delegates -- determined to spite Schaefer on a number of issues that year -- voted to override his veto, making Maryland the last state to allow optometrists to use the drops.

Game, set, match, Mr. Cooke.

In 1995, the optometrists put on a major push for the right to use therapeutic drops, sparking the battle again. That prompted the intervention of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who ordered his state health secretary to broker a compromise.

The result was that optometrists were given part of what they were seeking -- the right to use some of the therapeutic drops -- on condition that they agree not to come back before the General Assembly for five years.

Those five years are up.

`Here it is'

"I don't relish seeing it back, but here it is," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who has presided over the debate as chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee since 1987 and as Senate majority leader since 1983.

"I probably won't hear anything new this time that I haven't heard seven times before," Blount said. "Whatever we do this year, I doubt that it'll be resolved. It's a perpetual issue."

Indeed. It is much like other "scope of practice" issues for professions -- from podiatry to cosmetology -- that come before the legislature.

"My client's practice is determined by the General Assembly, which is totally unlike medicine," Cooke said. "As an optometrist, what I can treat and how I can treat is determined in Annapolis."

The optometrists are trying to broaden the law this year to allow them to use drops to treat glaucoma, prescribe some oral medications such as antibiotics and generally elbow out the ophthalmologists.

"Our argument is that these professionals ought to be armed with the best tools possible to do the job within their scope of practice," Cooke said.

The ophthalmologists have drawn the line, said Bereano, who was rehired this year by the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons to assist Joseph A. Schwartz III, the group's main lobbyist.

"When is enough enough?" Bereano asked. "Why not get to the core of it and give them open-heart surgery?"

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. are hoping to head off another fight. They have written to the state health secretary, asking him to step in again and see if the two groups can find common ground.

"What we're saying is, `Let's not go to war over this at the State House all the time,' " said Taylor, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Miller agreed: "We want to move forward without fighting such a vigorous turf battle."

Despite the presiding officers' effort, war will likely be waged again. And it will just as likely get personal.

"Bruce and I get along fine -- except for this issue," Cooke said.

Bereano smiled. "Let's just say Ira's personality and style stimulate me to work extra hard," he said.

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