By Jeff Isaak –
Type in “buy contact lenses online” into Google and what result do you get? Website after website, including those of giant retailers like Wal-Mart, asking you to click their link so you can buy contacts from them.
This wasn’t always the case. Merely 15 years ago, eye care professionals controlled the way we bought contact lenses and had no obligation to allow patients access to their prescriptions. This made optometrists the gatekeepers of the contact lens market and meant consumers could only obtain contacts from eye doctors, usually at higher prices. The medical industry loved this system. Giant corporations like Johnson & Johnson made more profit off the lenses while doctors saw money land in their pockets from inflated retail costs and sale “rebates” from the big brands. Everyone in the industry won, except for those who needed contacts to see.
Everything changed in 2003. Recognizing the market was smothered and consumers were at an arbitrary disadvantage, Congress enacted the Fairness in Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA) to protect consumer rights and restore greater competition to the market. The FCLCA requires doctors to provide prescriptions on demand, allowing bargain hunters to shop for the lowest price for contacts that suited them. Doctors needed to furnish prescriptions within eight hours of a request, granting patients in need of corrective lenses the ability to find the best deal.
Freedom caused the contact lens industry to practically boom overnight. Retailers like Wal-Mart, along with online sellers aiming to maximize efficiency, soon entered the market. Ending the medical lobby’s monopoly caused prices to drop immediately — ensuring customers received the best deals available. Today, over 41 million Americans spend $7 billion on contact lenses every year.
Although the FCLCA has proven to be an innovative way to bring more companies into the market to expand consumer choice, it didn’t completely take away the monopolistic power of some of the largest producers. Research has demonstrated that nearly a third of contact lens wearers still don’t receive their requested prescriptions on time, and most patients who require corrective lenses don’t realize they are entitled to a copy of their prescription at all. This allows dishonest eye care professionals to easily ignore the law.
In response to receiving over 300 complaints from consumers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has considered mandating the use of signed forms, allowing patients to realize what they are entitled to and ending anti-competitive practices once and for all.
The response has been all too predictable, and industry giants have begun lobbying against the proposed FTC rule, spreading campaign money around to get what they want, at the expense of their customers. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), along with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), for example, recently wrote a lettersigned by several of their colleagues urging the FTC to withdraw the new free market regulation.
Congress should be working to expand the choices of Americans, not take them away. In the coming weeks, however, Reps. Lance and Rush’s language undermining the FTC’s recently proposed update will be added to the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) bill at an upcoming committee markup. As the leaders of the Appropriations Subcommittee, Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) can resolve this issue by striking the language that would effectively kill this consumer safeguard. They should act on behalf of consumers, not corporate donors.
But they health care cronies haven’t stopped there.
Although FCLCA has served American families in need of corrective lenses, it hasn’t helped the large manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson, which still hopes to control the market with the backing of government force. Recently, the company has joined with the American Optometric Association (AOA) to fight their competition and push many smaller retail and online suppliers of contact lenses out of the market. Their biggest push is through the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA), a bill in the Senate that aims to reverse the free market reforms of 2003 by restoring the old monopolies over the eye care industry. Rumor is that it will be reintroduced in this congressional session soon after the recess.
The CLCHPA would require all contact lens sellers provide methods of communications, like fax numbers or landline numbers, points of contact many online vendors simply do not have and do not need. Even worse, doctors will regain an ability to block the sale of contacts to their patients by withholding their approval indefinitely. This means that eye doctors would essentially have the power to prevent the sale of lenses from any vendor they choose.
In the decade and a half since the passage of the FCLCA, the FTC has monitored online and alternative contact lens sellers quite closely, yet little evidence has been produced showing negative health effects caused by patients purchasing contact lenses from a source other than their eye doctor. FCLCA eliminated barriers to competition and harnessed the free market to provide a better selection for consumers and healthier eyes for those who need contacts. The law has been an outright success.
Will our representatives side with the free market and American consumers, or will they focus on pleasing healthcare lobbyists and corporate donors?