Free market advocates have it wrong on contact lens regulation

Free market advocates have it wrong on contact lens regulation
© Getty Images

Hypocrisy is no stranger to politics. That’s certainly true in the case of a handful of self-described “free market” advocates who are backing a big-government proposal to “open” the market for contact lenses by weighing it down with burdensome regulations. Rather than promote competition, their proposals would stifle it, raise costs for patients and small businesses, and interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

At issue is a proposed change to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations governing the sale of contact lenses, a change that the Competitive Enterprise Institute calls a “solution in search of a problem.” The change would require eye doctors to have their patients sign a document saying they received their contact lens prescription. But eye doctors are already required to give patients their prescriptions, a mandate that goes back to 2004. Eye doctors would also be forced to keep these documents on file for later federal inspection and investigation.


So why the proposed change? The FTC blithely suggests that eye doctors aren’t following the rules. But the FTC’s own data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, tell a different story. Over the five-year period ending in 2016, eye doctors wrote an estimated 200 million contact lens prescriptions nationwide. During that same period, the FTC received just 309 complaints from patients, or 0.0000015 percent of the total. While the FTC should investigate and act on legitimate violations of the rule, the relatively small number of complaints does not justify costly new industry-wide rules.


Despite this near-perfect record, the FTC wants to mandate that each of the more than 50,000 eye doctors across the country obtain a signed prescription verification from every one of the more than 40 million patients who wear contact lenses. The overreach is astounding, especially considering the costs that such a mandate would impose on thousands of vision practices operating as small businesses in communities across the country. According to the FTC, the new mandate would cost more than $10 million dollars in the first year. An independent analysis found that the real cost would likely be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Reps. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), along with nearly 60 other members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, recognize that Congress should be looking for ways to ease the burden on patients and their doctors instead of imposing a redundant requirement for patients and a costly burden on their doctors. Together they sent a letter requesting the FTC to withdraw this burdensome and costly proposal and to even consider a more effective and much less costly proposal, such as requiring posted signage informing patients of their rights under the law.

To explain the paradox of advocates for free markets favoring greater government control over contact lens prescribing, look no further than the online contact lens retailers who support the FTC proposal. These are the same retailers that have been accused of accepting outdated prescriptions or no prescription at all, putting patients’ eye health at risk. Let’s not forget that the largest online retailer of contacts is actively being sued by the FTC for anti-competitive behavior that the agency says “had the purpose, capacity, tendency and likely effect of restraining competition unreasonably and injuring consumers.”

If so-called advocates of the free market want to maintain less burdensome competition, they should take a closer look at those online contact lens retailers who are subverting the current laws instead of supporting more bureaucracy that will put further burden on community, small business healthcare providers.

Christopher J. Quinn, O.D., was first elected to the American Optometric Association Board of Trustees in June 2008 and installed as president in June 2017. Dr. Quinn also serves as chair to the AOA Executive and Agenda committees and is a member of the AOA Personnel Committee. He serves as adjunct faculty at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, State University of New York, New England College of Optometry, University of California at Berkeley, and The Ohio State University. In addition, Dr.Quinn is the owner and president of Omni Eye Services, an optometric referral center in New Jersey.