Don’t Let Congress Control Your Contact Lens Choices

Don’t Let Congress Control Your Contact Lens Choices

Congress has given eye doctors and contact lens manufacturers a monopoly on the market. That prevents consumers from determining what's best for them.
Eric Peters
By

Ever wonder why reading glasses are so easy to get—and inexpensive to buy?

Perhaps it’s because you can walk into any drug store or supermarket pharmacy and try on a pair, find the one that works for you, and buy them … without having to ask permission (or pay for the privilege) first?

You don’t need a prescription to shop around for reading glasses. Why should you have to get a prescription for contacts?

They are not a drug. You can’t “overdose” on them, or sell them to kids on the street corner (unless they’re near-sighted). Nonetheless, a prescription is required—and not only that, the prescription is often brand-name specific.

Congress Is Dictating How and Where You Buy Contacts

A law—the disingenuously named Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act—requires this. It states: “…contact lenses must be dispensed exactly as the prescription is written by the doctor.” This law, originally passed back in 2004, gave eye doctors and contact lens manufacturers a monopoly in the literal sense of the word, because it was enforced by law. Patients have no choice but to get (and pay for) exactly what the doctor ordered.

Interestingly, the majority of the scripts written are for contacts made by Johnson & Johnson, which dominates the contact lens market—and thus enjoys, via congressional edict, a legislated market for its products. As the Church Lady used to say on “Saturday Night Live,” “How convenient!”

An attempt was made to undo this medical rent-seeking by requiring doctors to issue more than just one name-brand scrip—thus making it possible for patients to shop around for contacts other than those made by Johnson & Johnson (just as people can shop around for equivalent but lower-cost generic versions of name-brand drugs). But unlike drugs, which are drugs (i.e., controlled substances), one could shop for contacts online from the convenience of one’s home.

The Fairness in Contact Lens Consumer Act of 2003 also required eye doctors to provide multiple prescriptions on demand, eliminating the one-size-fits-all “business” model that existed previously. It also eliminated doctors’ hemming and hawing: previously, an eye doctor could hold up the purchase of contacts by anyone other than his or her “preferred provider” (typically in-house) by refusing to consent to an online purchase—or by asking endless, open-ended questions of the outside provider, which cannot legally complete a sale until a doctor gives his or her consent.

Under the FCLCA, doctors had to submit questions or express concerns within a reasonable time (eight hours) after which the patient was free to proceed with the purchase. Who would object to that?

This Company Wants to Forbid Competition

Johnson & Johnson (and the American Optometry Association) could, via lobbyists and influence-peddled captive legislators. They want to rescind the FCLCA in order to effectively forbid contact lens competition by reviving the name-brand mandate and no longer requiring that doctors give their patients more than just the one prescription.

Their proposed legislation, an updated version of the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (S. 2777), would also impose onerous new requirements that online contact lens sellers set up and maintain land/fax lines for eye doctors’ use. That is like insisting that electronics stores sell Betamax players.

Leaving aside the idiocy of a law requiring faxes and phone calls in an e-mail (and text) age, the new proposed legislation would resurrect the delaying tactics used previously to indefinitely block sales to other than “preferred” providers, an obvious attempt to stifle competition, thereby pick consumers’ pockets for the benefit of crony capitalist operations like Johnson & Johnson.

So despite the legislation’s protective-sounding title, the 2016 CLCHPA is about protecting the crony capitalist revenue stream of doctors and contact lens manufacturers who legislatively profit at our expense.

Just as you can determine your reading glasses “prescription” by using the eye chart at the pharmacy or supermarket and trying on various strength lenses, it is just as easy (and inexpensive) to check your vision online, or by using a free phone app. Perish the thought.

Don’t Let Crony Capitalists Dictate Eyewear Choices

The pushers of for-profit contact lens legislation claim that it’s all about protecting public health. But aside from the evidence of a profit motive, where is the evidence that there’s a public health issue here? There is no prescription requirement in Japan, for example. And no evidence of any problems there.

The chief potential medical problem associated with contacts is infection (keratitis) typically resulting from improper use or failure to keep the contacts clean. But this has nothing to do with the contact lenses themselves. A duly-legislated crony capitalist Name Brand contact lens is just as susceptible to causing problems, if not worn or cared for correctly as any other pair of contacts.

Dr. Paul Donzis, a professor of ophthalmology at UCLA, is one of several prominent eye specialists who has publicly critiqued the motives as well as the claims made by the interests pushing the CLCHPA. “Based on authoritative scientific articles,” he wrote in an open letter to the CLCHPA’s authors, “it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens-related injury.” A peer-reviewed study in the medical journal, Eye and Contact Lens, found no evidence of increased keratitis resulting from the purchase of contact lenses online.

Meanwhile, there is abundant evidence of a profit motive at work here. Around 40 million Americans wear contacts. It’s a billion dollar business.

But it’s not business that’s the problem—or keratitis. It’s forcing people to do business with crony capitalists, using flimsy excuses about non-existent problems to justify it.

Eric Peters is a freelance political columnist. He is the author of “Automotive Atrocities” and “Road Hogs” (MBI) and is currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia.

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