There is always one group or industry trying to capitalize on our lack of awareness as consumers. Actually, at any given time, there are many pitfalls out there. They often claim it is to protect us for our own good. However, most times, it is just to keep a market so that consumers haven’t any other options.
The corrective contact lens market is one of those unique categories within the health care industry that falls in both of these scopes.
Some 41 million Americans utilize contact lenses, and up until just over 10 years ago, they were only able to purchase lenses directly from an optometrist. How convenient that a prescribing doctor was also the only place to “fill” the prescription. The contact lens industry is the only market within the health care industry in which a doctor not only writes a prescription, but also directly sells the item which fulfills that prescription’s request.
In 2003, Congress passed the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA) to correct this trend that trapped contact lens consumers. The bi-partisan legislation required optometrists to provide copies of contact lens prescriptions to their patients. This would enable the patient to then shop for contacts at a retailer of their choice. This legislation opened competition within the contact lens market and lowered prices for consumers. The Federal Trades Commission passed the first Contact Lens rule in 2004 establishing this legislation as standard practice.
Not surprisingly, this made the special interest groups that had protected stake in the contact lens market very unhappy.
Understanding that their market share was now vulnerable, contact lens prescribing doctors found a loophole in the regulation – there are no requirements in place to ensure that they actually followed this new practice. In fact, a survey of prescribing doctors in 2008 found that 50 percent self-reported they did not release prescriptions to their patients. A more recent survey of contact lens purchasers found that more than 30 percent were not provided their prescriptions. This shows that doctors are very blatantly resisting this law in order to protect their own bottom lines.
In an effort to create accountability and curb this problem, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has reviewed the 2003 legislation and has presented language for a second contact lens rule. This new rule would establish a requirement that providers obtain acknowledgement from their patients of the receipt of a prescription. This acknowledgement must be kept on record for three years. This rule is a straightforward, common sense protection to ensure that optometrists are complying with the law and to further cement consumer choice freedoms.
Again, special interest groups are up in arms. The claims: purchasing corrective contact lenses from anyone other than a doctor is dangerous and the costs of this “check the box” requirement are exorbitant.
These are insignificant and plainly false concerns. Filling a contact lens prescription from a retailer is no more dangerous than purchasing it from a doctor – also a retailer. The consumer must still provide a prescription and the retailer must take the time to verify the prescription. In regard to costs, the FTC has determined that the cost of following this new accountability measure would amount to one minute per customer. More time is spent verifying a prescription should a provider not release it to their patient.
The new language proposed by the FTC is a sensible step in protecting contact lens wearers. It will continue to promote market innovation and diversity, further lowering costs in the health care industry. Congress should resist efforts from special interest groups attempting to weaken this rule and line their pockets. Instead, Congress should protect the millions of contact lens wearers and allow the FTC’s rule to move through the process without weakening ammendments.
— Gary Zuckett is the executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.