Prior to the passage of much needed reform legislation in 2004, the sale of contact lenses was primarily controlled by eye doctors exclusively. Patients were not given their prescriptions and not allowed to shop for better prices. This situation changed in 2004 with the passage of the Fairness in Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA), which allowed patients to shop for the best prices for their contacts. It required doctors to provide patients with their prescriptions, leading to lower prices and more choices for consumers. The bill was a success as it introduced free market principles into this industry, which, not surprisingly, became more prosperous.
The legislation allowed consumers to purchase contacts from online sources and retail giants like Walmart. The monopoly was busted and prices dropped dramatically. Of the 41 million Americans who purchase contact lenses today, one-third take advantage of online sites and retail outlets. These sales total approximately $1.5 billion in an industry valued at $4.5 billion in the United States and $8.8 billion worldwide.
Unfortunately, a new bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA), which would strip away some of these reforms. It is advocated by contact lens manufacturers and the American Optometrists Association. The bill forces third party lens manufacturers to provide additional information to doctors, who would be allowed to ask questions and delay the delivery of the contacts to patients. It clearly limits the free market advantages of the 2004 legislation and restores more of the monopoly for optometrists.
Supporters of CLCHPA claim that contacts sold by third party vendors are unreliable and have caused more medical problems in patients. However, studies have proven that eye infections have not increased as more patients have purchased lenses from online sources and third party vendors.
UCLA Professor of Ophthalmology, Dr. Paul Donzis, conducted extensive research into this topic. He concluded that “based on…authoritative scientific articles, it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens related [injury].” The medical journal Eye and Contact Lens also conducted an extensive 20-year study of this issue and concluded that there was no increase in contact lens related keratitis after the 2004 legislation was passed. In effect, giving consumers more options did not lead to more health problems.
Since no lenses can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription, these complaints are little more than scare tactics. The entire purpose of the new legislation is to shut down a thriving industry, limit choices for patients and force them to pay more for contacts, while giving optometrists a greater percentage of the profits.
The new bill is being vigorously pushed by the medical lobby, which understands that in many European countries and Japan, it is not even required for patients to receive a doctor’s prescription for contact lenses. In these countries, there is also no evidence of increased health risks or additional eye infections. Unfortunately, even some members of the Louisiana Congressional Delegation have jumped on the cronyism bandwagon.
Hopefully, Americans will soon be able to have the same freedom as those patients in other countries. Today, a patient can totally bypass a doctor and use an online app to accurately check their vision on their phone. This type of technological innovation is threatening to the medical lobby which is trying to maximize profits and limit patient choices.
Our political leaders should embrace new technologies, while maintaining a strong interest in promoting patient safety. Unfortunately, the new Senate bill is little more than a throwback to a bygone era of monopolies which did not place the interests of patients first.
At the very least, the new bill should be defeated and the next step should be to follow the lead of other nations in giving patients even more control of how they purchase contact lenses.