This article originally appeared on The Orange County Register on December 15, 2016.
Contact lens wearers can breathe a sigh of relief as the lame-duck congressional session comes to an end. Despite their best efforts, lobbyists for the eye doctors have failed to attach the “Contact Lens Consumers Health Protection Act” to any must-pass legislation in the hopes of rolling back pro-consumer reforms that opened the contact lens market to competition and benefited millions of Americans.
There’s little time to relax, however. Special interests and their lobbyists will flock to the new Congress as soon as it is seated, looking for any opportunity to carve out crony benefits for themselves at the expense of the public.
Reforms enacted over a decade ago were a major success for contact lens consumers. They put a stop to shady prescriber practices that sought to trick patients into purchasing only overpriced brands which offered lucrative benefits for doctors.
Today, doctors are required to provide a copy of their prescription to patients without prompting, though some still like to “forget” until they are reminded. Nevertheless, it used to be common for doctors to not provide prescriptions, which are required in order to buy from third-party sellers like 1-800 Contacts, Walmart or Costco. Likewise, they would often fail to “verify” the prescription in a timely fashion, a legal requirement before orders can be fulfilled.
Removing these impediments to competition ended monopoly contact lens pricing by increasing choice for consumers. The result is more affordable and convenient contact lenses available to millions.
Proponents of the CLCHPA don’t admit that their goal is to undo these successes. Instead, they hide behind bogus claims of protecting consumer health. It’s surely mere coincidence that their bill would carve massive loopholes into the pro-consumer reforms and allow doctors to once again stall requests from third-party sellers to verifying prescriptions, or that it has the backing of the biggest lens manufacturer — Johnson & Johnson — who stands to gain when more consumers are forced to buy higher priced lenses again.
The truth of the matter is that consumers are in no need of protection from third-party contact lens sellers. Study after study has debunked the idea that lenses purchased online or from third-party sellers are any less safe than their more expensive counterparts.
There’s no real consumer health reason that prescriptions are even necessary at all. In places like Europe and Japan, for instance, consumers are not required to get prescriptions before purchasing contacts, and there’s no evidence they suffer any harm for it. Patients are free to seek the guidance of doctors when it benefits them, rather than being forced to do so when it benefits doctors.
The public has survived at least one effort to use the lame-duck session to limit their freedoms and reduce their welfare. The fact that proponents of undoing successful reforms in the contact lens market were willing to even try to exploit the unaccountable session and slip crony handouts into “must pass” legislation, like a bill to keep the government funded, shows they will stoop to any level. We must keep a watchful eye in the coming months as the new Congress moves quickly to enact its agenda to prevent any similarly underhanded moves and ensure that contact lens consumers remain protected from monopoly pricing.