Originally published by The Hill on August 9, 2017.
In its never-ending quest to corner the contact lens market, the American Optometric Association (AOA) has begun a new lobbying campaign to persuade the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to abandon its efforts to protect competition in the contact lens market.
The FTC has proposed to shore up its rules ensuring market competition by requiring eye care professionals to obtain a signed form from each of their patients verifying that a copy of their prescription has been received. This small step is necessary to break the government-created monopoly that large contact lens manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson have hugely profited from over the years.
Unfortunately, lobbyists have convinced Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) to lead a House “Dear Colleague” letter, sponsored by the AOA, to encourage the FTC to withdraw the new regulation. It should be noted that two of the largest contact lens manufacturers, Johnson & Johnson and Allergan, ranked #2 and #3 as the top donors to Lance’s 2016 campaign fundraising efforts.
Johnson & Johnson control 40 percent of the contact lens industry thanks to a history of offering eye care providers a substantial kickback on every sale of their products, thus encouraging product loyalty. The AOA and the manufacturers have lobbied hard over the years to try to maintain this symbiotic relationship at the expense of the 42 million contact lens wearers in the U.S.
Up until 2004 when the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA) became law, eye care professionals were not required to permit their patients to shop around for lenses. The AOA and manufacturers even colluded to ensure that they were the exclusive source for purchasing the lenses they prescribed until being hit with multi-state antitrust lawsuit in 1994. Yet despite being exposed, they continued to engage in other dirty tricks. Often unable to acquire a physical copy of their own prescription, patients were forced to pay whatever over-inflated prices the optometrist charged.
Since patients were liberated in 2004, the AOA and Johnson & Johnson have lost market share to e-commerce and outside retailers. The free market flourished by providing more choices at better prices.
The FCLCA has been a blessing for consumers, but there are still some holes. According to a recent Consumer Action survey, nearly one-third of patients today still do not receive their prescriptions from eye care professionals, who are engaging in benign neglect of the law. That’s why last year, the FTC proposed requiring eye care professionals to obtain a signed form from each patient signifying they received a copy of their prescription.
Now, once again, the AOA is complaining about a regulation that requires them to have the patient sign one singular form to verify that the optometrist is following the law. They simply get it signed and file it for three years. That’s all there is to it.
Offices already have their patients sign for insurance or credit card payments, and patients fill out an untold number of forms regarding health history that are then maintained for years in the patient’s file. Adding one more form that protects the rights of consumers is surely worth that extra minute or two. Moreover, this minimally burdensome requirement is only necessary because prescribers keep flouting protections designed to ensure competition in a system where the government mandates patients visit a practitioner in the first place.
Through generous campaign donations, along with some questionable research, the AOA has convinced Lance and Rush that complying with this regulation could cost offices upwards of $75,000 each year and that it is too costly to take this step to ensure that patient rights are upheld. But, it is necessary due to the ongoing issue of patients still not being told they have a right to their prescriptions and thinking that they have no choice but to purchase contact lenses while in the office rather than shopping for the best price.
Now, in just a few weeks, this issue can be resolved by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). It has been reported that language undermining the FTC’s recently proposed update will be added by the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Committee at the upcoming markup. As leaders of the Appropriations Subcommittee, Capito and Coons will have the opportunity to strike this language from the bill.
Given the AOA’s history of questionable behavior, senators ought to be more skeptical of the group’s self-serving arguments and lobbying campaign. They should understand the negative implications that Lance and Rush’s sign-on letter would have for the American people, and they should put a stop to the anti-competitive practices of the eye care industry. The future of affordable eye care will depend on their decision.