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Prior to the passage of the Fairness in Contact Lens Consumers Act in 2003, optometrists were not obligated to provide patients with copies of their prescriptions. Consumers were usually forced to purchase contact lenses directly from eye doctors — usually at inflated prices.
Industry giants such as Johnson & Johnson essentially had a monopoly over the contact lens market, due to their close relationship with eye doctors. Johnson & Johnson, which produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s contact lenses, is the default choice of contact for many optometrists, because the company gives optometrists lucrative rebates for every sale of its Acuvue contact lenses.
Recognizing that this sleight of hand was inhibiting free markets, Congress passed the FCLCA to level the playing field. Requiring doctors to provide prescriptions on demand, the FCLCA allowed consumers to shop for contacts wherever they chose.
As a direct result of the FCLCA, various players entered the market for the benefit of all. Competitors, such as online sellers and other retailers like Walmart, immediately crushed the medical lobby’s monopoly, causing contact prices to drop instantaneously.
Today, more than 41 million Americans can afford to purchase over $7 billion worth of contact lenses every year from optometrists, ophthalmologists, online sellers and retail stores.
Nevertheless, monopolistic behavior still reigns in many eye-care centers across the nation. Although the FCLCA requires eye doctors to give patients their prescriptions, research suggests that approximately one third of contact lens wearers still aren’t receiving them — because many patients are unaware they’re entitled to them.
After receiving more than 300 complaints from consumers over the past year, the Federal Trade Commission is now considering mandating the use of signed forms to remedy the situation. Under a recently proposed FTC rule, eye doctors would be required to have patients sign forms verifying the receipt of their prescriptions, and to hold on to the prescriptions for three years.
Clearly the rule is a common-sense regulation necessary to quash noncompliance with the FCLCA, but not everyone sees “eye to eye” with the measure, particularly industry giants.
Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., and Bobby Rush, D-Ill, spearheaded a House sign-on letter in July, urging the FTC to withdraw the rule from consideration, writing that the rule could somehow impose up to $75,000 in costs for private practices. It is worth noting that Johnson & Johnson has given Rep. Lance over $45,000 in campaign donations. In fact, J&J and Allergen, two of the contact lens mega-giants, both ranked in the top three of Lance’s political donors last cycle.
Reportedly, the language from Lance and Rush’s letter has been sneaked into a Financial Services and General Government Committee bill, which will be voted on in the upcoming markup. It is now up to Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., and Chris Coons, D-Del., the leaders of that Appropriations Subcommittee, to put a stop to the protectionist status quo by redacting that language from the legislation.
Unsatisfied with free-market competition, Johnson & Johnson representatives have even helped draft the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act, a Senate bill which would kill many of the contact lens free-market reforms already made by Congress — effectively restoring the “optometrist monopoly.”
The CLCHPA is explicitly designed to destroy free-market competition, requiring that all contact lens sellers provide fax and landline numbers — methods of contact many online vendors don’t have. Even worse, eye doctors would regain their approval cushion for third-party orders, meaning they could block the sale of contact lenses from vendors they don’t like by refusing to approve transactions.
Fortunately, it’s much too late. Consumers are seeing straight through the contact lens monopoly, and if the will of the American people is heard, there’s no going back.