Lame Duck Congress Is After Your Contact Lenses

As our country gears up for the inauguration of President-Elect Trump, there is a renewed sense of optimism that the executive branch will work with Congress to "drain the swamp" by eliminating the cronyism that has plagued previous administrations.

In the meantime, it is all too easy to dismiss the current lame-duck congressional members as just a bunch of placeholders waiting to leave office.  In reality, this transitional period presents a unique temptation for Congress to push through legislation while no one is looking that rewards special interest groups in big ways.

One of the main temptations this year is to reward the billion-dollar medical lobby for campaign contributions by passing the protectionist Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA) before Christmas, allowing the American Optometric Association (AOA) and its cohorts at Johnson & Johnson to return to its pre-2004 monopoly.

History of the Contact Lens Monopoly

For many years, contact lens wearers were held captive by this contact lens cartel.  Doctors refused to provide copies of prescriptions, giving patients no other recourse but to fill their contact lens orders at the optometrist's office at inflated retail prices.  It was a textbook example of cronyism – doctors and their favored lens manufacturers won at the expense of everyone else.

In 2004, Congress crushed this government-created monopoly by enacting the Fairness in Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA), in effect declaring that prescriptions are the property of the patient, not the prescribing doctor.

As a result of this legislation, an optometrist is now required to give the patient a copy of his contact lens prescription after each visit.  Now consumers are free to purchase their contact lenses wherever they choose rather than being locked into paying the inflated prices at their eye doctors' offices.

Thanks to the FCLCA, the Walmarts of the world provide a wide range of contact lenses to consumers at competitive prices.  This has turned the contact lens industry into a $7-billion-a-year industry that serves over 41 million people annually.

The Medical Lobby Fights Back

Contact lens consumers have a lot to cheer for – that is, unless the medical lobby gets its way.  Johnson & Johnson, which manufacturers about 40 percent of all contact lenses, is not satisfied with its piece of the pie and has colluded with the AOA to push a protectionist bill through Congress that will restore its monopoly power.

If passed, CLCHPA will reduce consumer buying options and greatly increase costs by turning back the clock to the pre-2004 monopolistic practices.  It will allow optometrists to "pocket-veto" third-party transactions through the process of direct verification.

Under the current process of passive verification, retail and online sellers are allowed to fill prescriptions if the doctor's office does not respond within eight hours of the request.  This ensures that doctors do not use the power of their prescription mandates for personal gain.

Direct verification would throw this process to the wayside.  It would allow orders to be held up indefinitely until optometrists give approval to each one.  The doctor could choose to ignore all requests, in essence killing the sale and leaving patients with no other choice but to order directly from the optometrists.

CLCHPA is a job-killer that will force many businesses to close and lay off thousands, all while pouring even more money into the AOA's and Johnson & Johnson's pockets.

The FTC Steps Up to the Plate

In anticipation of CLCHPA passing, many optometrists are no longer providing written prescriptions to their patients, in direct violation of the Fairness in Contact Lens Consumers Act.

The problem has become so widespread that the FTC has introduced a new proposal, which will amend the 2004 contact lens law by requiring optometrists to have their patients sign a form verifying that they have been given a written copy of their prescription. The FTC's proposal is a major step in right direction to prevent the price-gouging that has been occurring in optometrists' offices all around the country.

This proposal strengthens free market practices and puts the brakes on the AOA's and Johnson & Johnson's attempts to restore their previous monopolistic control.  The FTC proposal is a sure winner to protect the American consumer and should be passed immediately.

The AOA and Johnson & Johnson claim that their efforts to limit the competition has nothing to do with profits and everything to do with patient safety.  For years, they have conspired to convince Congress that contact lenses sold by retail stores and online sellers are somehow less safe, even though they are the exact same contact lenses sold in optometrists' offices.

Bogus Health Concerns

new study by Survey Sampling International (SSI) shows that much of the AOA's and the contact lens manufacturers' data is purposely misleading.  The SSI study shows that 83% of consumers purchasing online products are "very satisfied" as compared to 70% of consumers purchasing their contacts from their optometrists.

Additionally, in a letter written to the authors of the CLCHPA, UCLA ophthalmology professor Dr. Paul B. Donzis shared compelling research to the effect that where consumers purchased their contact lenses had little bearing on safety.  "Based on ... authoritative scientific articles, it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens-related ... eye health problems," he stated.

Throughout most of Europe and Japan, consumers are not even required to have a prescription to purchase contact lenses.  Since the prescription policies have gone into effect, statistics have shown no increase in contact-related eye infections.  Even while Johnson & Johnson is supposedly so worried about the eye health of patients in America, the company shows none of the same concerns when selling the very same contact lenses without prescriptions to the Europeans and the Japanese.

According to new scientific research, a visit to your optometrist may soon become unnecessary.  Americans may one day be able to give themselves their own eye exams with the help of a smartphone.  New technology is being used by phone apps like Opternative and GlassesOn to conduct a thorough eye exam that has been proven as accurate as traditional exams.

But as the year comes to an end, members of Congress have a decision to make.  Will they back the FTC proposal and strengthen the existing 2004 Fairness in Contact Lens Consumer Act that has supported the free market by creating new companies and thousands of jobs along with lowering consumer costs?  Or will Congress succumb to the classic crony capitalism of the past that protects the interests of special interest groups over jobs and affordable prices for the consumer?  Only time will tell.

Drew Armstrong is a freelance political journalist based out of Orange County, California.

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