Optometrists and ophthalmologists, unable to negotiate a compromise, will leave it to legislators to decide whether optometrists should be allowed to prescribe certain drugs.

This summer, optometrists and ophthalmologists tried to negotiate an expansion of the Optometry Practice Act with the state's licensing division. However, the drug prescription hurdle proved too much and talks broke down.Since then, optometrists have drafted a bill to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.

Optometrists have been seeking expanded powers of practice since 1985, according to Dr. Jeff Keller, co-chairman of the Utah Optometric Association's legislative committee. But Utah physicians have opposed such an expansion.

Keller says money is the reason.

"We look at this as a turf battle," he said.

Ophthalmologists argue that optometrists lack supervised training in the use of drugs and that there's no compelling reason to give them the right to dispense medicine.

Keller counters that optometrists get as much training as dentists, podiatrists and physician assistants, who, to some extent, are all legally allowed to prescribe drugs.

Optometrists get four years of training on the eye, including some clinical experience with patients suffering from a variety of eye diseases, he added.

States that have given optometrists the authority to treat minor conditions and prescribe a limited variety of drugs haven't had problems, Keller contends.

The Utah optometrists' proposal would permit them to prescribe anti-bacterial and anti-viral drugs and other drugs in consultation with a physician. They would be allowed to treat some common and relatively uncomplicated conditions, such as conjunctivitis, or pink eye, and minor injuries.

The law would require optometrists to refer to doctors any patients with conditions that didn't respond to treatment.

If the law is adopted, only optometrists with sufficient training would be licensed to dispense drugs.

Keller said giving optometrists expanded powers would allow them to provide better patient care and save money for people who don't live near an ophthalmologist.

But Dr. Robert M. Christensen, president of the Utah Ophthalmological Society, says there's no reason to dissipate good medical care already available in the state.

He calls the proposal "one of the most alarming pieces of legislation" to be drafted this year and likened it to "asking (lawmakers) to approve someone flying an airplane without ever having served as a co-pilot."

Christensen noted that while optometrists have four years of training, they don't get supervised experience prescribing drugs.

"I would be concerned that an individual that has not had supervised training in the use of medications could become licensed to do it only by book learning," he said.