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In the battle over eye doctors, senators take lobbyist out for a 'thank you dinner'

The setting was a private room at Shula's 347 Grill on Wednesday, arguably the swankiest venue in Tallahassee, and the dinner list included six senators and head of the optometric association and its lobbyist.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, sponsor of a bill to give optometrists the ability to prescribe oral medications, joined five of his Senate brethren for what they described as a social "thank you" dinner. The lobbyist: Dave Ramba. The client: Dr. Kenneth Lawson, a Bradenton optometrist and head of the Florida Optometric Association. The check? Paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.

Among the guests: Senate Majority Leader Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, Sens. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, Anitere Flores, R-Miami, Aaron Bean, R-Ponte Vedra Beach and Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.

"This is just a legislative thank you for their fundraising,'' Benacquisto said, when a reporter reminded her that any talk of legislative business would render it an open meeting.

"We do try to separate these things,'' she said. "Before I came out, they were just talking about crème brûlée" she said, referring to the custardy dessert.

Should the reporter join you just in case? "I'm not in charge,'' Benacquisto replied.

Richter, who is sponsoring the bill they vowed not to talk about, came prepared for some eye doctor assistance. He pulled from his breast pocket the broken arm of his glasses, which he said had just lost its screw. "Do you think they can fix this?'' he asked.

"We aren't talking business,'' Ramba said in a text. "We do that in their offices during the day. This is social and political."

Nonetheless, the dinner comes before the first volley in the annual firefight between Florida's optometrists and ophthalmologists on Thursday. The House Health Quality Subcommittee will vote on a bill to expand the power of optometrists to prescribe oral medications, a measure bitterly fought by the Florida Medical Association and their eye specialists, the opthalmologists.

Last year, the optometrists won a huge victory when the FMA agreed to a Senate deal to give optometrists the right to prescribe drugs in exchange for long-sought lawsuit protections. The deal died in the House but not before the FMA head blamed the ophthalmologists for being outgunned and offered a rare and candid observation about the power of campaign cash.

“Strength in the legislative and political arenas is measured by relationships,'' wrote Dr. Miguel A. Machado, a St. Augustine neurosurgeon, in a letter to FMA members. “In this case, the optometrists have far more political strength than the ophthalmologists. The optometrists have raised $668,499 for their political action committee during the past year compared to $46,842 by the ophthalmologists.”

This time the opthalmologists have ramped up, hiring a longer list of lobbyists, including Brian Ballard, one of the party's top fundraisers. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-LeHigh Acres in the House, would not only allow optometrists to administer oral drugs, they would have to complete a course dealing with medications and take an exam about it. The Florida Optometric Association and the FMA would jointly develop and administer the course and examination.

The dinner meeting narrowly skirted the bounds of Senate rules. At an Ethics workshop given to the entire Senate on Tuesday, senators were reminded that any time three or more of them meet in private to discuss legislative business, the meeting must be open. And any time the majority of a committee meets to discuss legislative business, the meeting must be noticed. 

Of the six senators at the Shula's dinner, Bean, Flores and Grimsley are members of the Health Policy Committee which will hear the optometrists bill in the Senate. Bean is its chairman.