Let's open the market for contact lenses in the manner Congress intended
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Contact lenses are a staple in the daily lives of more than 40 million Americans, which makes it crucial that consumers have easy access to them. That's what's at stake in a current debate before U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is considering a simple and commonsense rule to require optometrists to sign an acknowledgement that they provide each patient with a copy of his or her prescription.

The proposed rule has received widespread support from progressives, free-market groups and consumer advocates. That it is in any way controversial, unfortunately, offers a good illustration of just how consumer-unfriendly the contact lens market has tended to be.

While the FTC's proposal should be an easy lift, the American Optometric Association is fighting it tooth and nail. They claim the rule is unnecessary, that it would be costly to implement and that only a few patients have complained to the FTC about having trouble obtaining their prescriptions. Those surface objections notwithstanding, it's not hard to see what actually motivates this pushback from the optometrists.

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For decades, optometrists enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the sale of contact lenses, thanks to anti-competitive regulations at the state level. Optometrists claimed they needed to “protect” consumers from injury or subpar fittings, and that this justified allowing them to hold their patients' contact lens prescriptions hostage. Essentially, consumers were usually forced to buy contact lenses directly from the optometrists who prescribed them.

 

All of this changed in 2003, when Congress passed the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA). The law, which has proven a game changer for the market, required optometrists to provide each patient a copy of his or her prescription free of charge, and to verify the patient’s prescription to any entity authorized by the patient to craft lenses. 

Predictably, in the years since President George W. Bush signed the law, the contact lens market has grown by leaps and bounds, with the emergence both of new retailers and of a bevy of new online options. As freedom of choice expanded, prices dropped, making contact lenses generally more affordable. A study published by Contact Lens Spectrum shows that the number of adults purchasing lenses grew from 36 million in 2005 to 40.9 million in 2015, while the market's value grew from an estimated $1.8 billion in 2005 to $2.7 billion in 2015.

Nonetheless, most Americans do not know their rights concerning prescriptions for contact lenses. According to a recent poll, 60 percent were unaware that federal law already requires optometrists to provide a copy of their prescription without a fee or purchase. More alarmingly, 31 percent claim they were not given a copy of their prescription after getting their contact lens eye exams in direct violation of the law.

Despite all the good the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act has done, the optometrist lobby continues to fight for protectionist policies. In particular, they want to restrict online sales, pushing bogus claims that that ordering contacts online are potentially dangerous to a patient’s health. In fact, most contact lens injuries stem from misuse by the patient, such as wearing lenses overnight, washing them in regular water or reusing saline lens solution. These issues cannot be prevented either by the prescribing optometrist or the retailer.

Thus, in the end, the optometrists’ fight to halt the proposed FTC rule has little to do with increased paperwork or costs and everything to do with maintaining an unfair leg up on the competition. If patients don’t know their rights, optometrists aren’t required to inform them.

Congress has given Americans the freedom to choose from whom they purchase contacts. The FTC is doing the right thing here by making sure the law is implemented properly and that consumers are treated fairly. This is not an overbearing regulation that should be fought, but a commonsense rule that spurs greater competition and consumer choice.

Easton Randall is an outreach manager for the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.