Rural Utahns will no longer have to drive all the way to the Wasatch Front for treatment of minor eye ailments.

But thousands of Utahns who now drive to Nevada for treatment by homeopathic physicians will still be making that drive.The Legislature finally closed the book on a long-running and acrimonious feud between optometrists and ophthalmologists, but they may have just begun to fight on an equally controversial medical issue: licensing homeopathic physicians.

Homeopathic physicians use herbs and other natural means to treat degenerative diseases, like cancer and arthritis. Such treatment is considered "unproven" and is opposed by the Utah Medical Association.

Homeopathic licensing board

The legislation, sponsored by J. Reese Hunter, R-Salt Lake, would establish a Homeopathic Physician Licensing Board in the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, thus placing the physician under state regulation. A person wishing to practice homeopathic medicine also would have to be a licensed traditional physician.

A homeopathic doctor "already can practice under current law. The caveat is, he can't practice unproven medicine," said David Robinson, director of the Division of Professional and Occupational Licensing.

Lawmakers said they received more phone calls from people supportive of the bill than any other issue before the Legislature, including abortion. The bill passed the House, but the Senate ran out of time before they could consider it.

New power for optometrists

While lawmakers will undoubtedly be debating the merits of homeopathy for years to come, they finally agreed to grant authority to optometrists to prescribe eye drops and treat minor ailments - something ophthalmologists and the Utah Medical Association had vigorously opposed as a health risk.

But in what boiled down to a rural-urban fight, a compromise was reached in which optometrists can treat minor eye ailments after consultation by telephone with a licensed ophthalmologist.

Other health issues

In other health issues, lawmakers agreed to study the issue of banning smoking in public restaurants, raised the cigarette tax to fund substance abuse treatment for teenagers and did not mandate that every public school have a nurse.

But they did pass a bill offering incentives to governments who convert their vehicle fleets to cleaner-burning natural gas, and they did create a Department of Environmental Quality to spearhead the state's environmental efforts in the 1990s.

"We'll be developing a strategic plan," said Ken Alkema, director of the Division of Environmental Quality, which in July 1 will split with the Health Department and become a separate department.

"Our first priority is air quality. But we will also be working on water pollution, solid waste, hazardous waste, radiation and drinking water quality," he said.