Contact lenses are big business. A $4 billion industry, in fact. That’s not much of a surprise when you consider that an estimated 40 million Americans wear contacts. Also not a surprise: the fact that the industry’s biggest players are fighting to use government to limit choice and line their pockets at the expense of consumers.
Earlier this year, legislation called the “Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act of 2016” (S. 2777) was introduced in the Senate. Under the guise of consumer protections, it would roll back prior legislative efforts which saw the successful introduction of competition into the contact lens market.
Powerful groups that would benefit financially, like the American Optometry Association (AOA) and Johnson & Johnson, are backing the bill. Johnson & Johnson is the most dominant manufacturer of contact lenses, while the AOA represents Optometrists, who not only write prescriptions for lenses, but also make incentive-laden deals with manufacturers to sell from their offices the same brands they prescribe. Both are financially threatened by bulk retailers and online sellers offering consumers cheaper alternatives.
Before Congress acted in 2003 with passage of the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act (FCLCA), prescribers engaged in a variety of shady and anti-competitive behaviors. Sometimes they would not provide copies of the prescription after an exam, which patients need if they want to purchase their lenses elsewhere. Or if an independent seller called to verify the prescription – as they are required to do by law – prescribing offices would often drag out the process as long as possible, if not outright refuse to pick up the phone.
The FCLCA put an end to these problems with common sense reforms that required prescribers to automatically offer a copy of the prescription, and to verify those prescriptions within a reasonable amount of time, after which independent sellers could simply assume they were genuine. These reforms allowed the market to flourish, and consumers benefited from more affordable and convenient access through a variety of online sellers.
Fast forward a decade and the same folks are at it again. This time they are arguing that safety requires that the pro-competition reforms be effectively undone. They claim that online sellers aren’t correctly fulfilling the prescriptions, and that their products are less safe.
There’s new evidence to suggest that those arguments, in addition to being obviously self-serving, are flat wrong.
A survey conducted by Survey Sampling International puts these claims to rest. For instance, the special interests argue that existing law needs to more strongly require that prescriptions be filled exactly as written. The survey, however, reveals this is a solution in search of a problem. Buyers who shop online report being more likely, not less, to see their prescriptions accurately fulfilled.
It also debunks other common assertions to back the new legislation, like the claim that there’s a pervasive problem of online sellers fulfilling expired prescriptions, or that online purchasers face greater health risk. None of these claims are supported by evidence. Nevertheless, they hope to use these claims to roll back key provisions of the FCLCA. The most egregious example from the pending Senate bill would allow for prescribers to get around the time limits for verification by repeatedly asking questions of sellers about their prescriptions, indefinitely stalling the process.
Contrary to the self-serving claims of industry representatives, the best way to promote health is to provide affordable access to new, clean lenses. With the higher prices that would result by rolling back competition, many would end up using their contacts for too long, which increases the risk of keratitis, or infection of the cornea. But it seems the doctors upon whom patients are required by law to entrust their care see that as an acceptable trade-off for higher profits.
Andrew F. Quinlan is co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (@CFandP).