Hard on the eyes

Last week, I had my yearly eye exam appointment.  It cost me a half day's worth of vacation time from my job, an hour of driving in California traffic to get to the office, and an extra 30-minute wait because the doctor was "running a little late."  My "15-minute" eye exam cost me over $150.

The most frustrating part about this whole scenario is that there was nothing wrong with my eyes.  The only reason I went is because my contact lens prescription had expired and needed to be renewed.

Due to the successful lobbying efforts of the American Optometric Association (AOA), there is a legal requirement in many states that all contact lens wearers have an eye exam proctored by a licensed physician in order to purchase contact lenses.  But a revolution has come about as companies develop low-cost, high-tech alternatives that are removing the hassle and expense of exams.  This new technology has thrown the AOA into a complete panic and has them working hard to make sure we will never have access to this new technology.

Ocular telemedicine gives users the freedom to choose when and where they have an eye exam and at a much lower cost.  A case in point is new phone apps like Opternative that have the ability to give users 25-minute "eye appointments" with their smartphones by determining the refractive error of participants' eyes through the manipulation of light on the phone screen, disrupting the traditional way of doing things.

As Congress works to repeal and replace Obamacare, some members are wisely looking at innovative solutions, like telemedicine, to make health care truly affordable again for all Americans.  However, they face an uphill battle against the medical lobbyists and their congressional cronies, who have increased efforts to maintain the existing expensive health care industry by passing laws that make it impossible to allow for the use of any innovation.

Even though the AOA admits on its own website that eye health examinations are necessary only once every two years for healthy adults aged 18 to 60 (not every time a contact lens refill is needed), the AOA has no interest in breaking up the cartel that allows optometrists to charge their patients inflated prices for an inconvenient service.  That's because the AOA works for the optometrists, not the consumers.

The unfortunate truth is that in many states, opponents of modernizing the health industry like the AOA have spent millions of dollars to influence elected officials who have not taken the time to truly research the issue.  They incessantly blow up legislatures' phone lines until they get the legislative action that they want.

That's why legislation that bans the use of ocular telemedicine has been introduced or is being considered for introduction in states like Connecticut (by Rep. Kevin Ryan [D]), Minnesota (by Rep. Tama Theis [R] and Sen. Karin Housley [R]), Nevada (by Rep. Jill Tolles [R]), and New Mexico (by Rep. Deborah Armstrong [D]).

That's not only bad politics; it's morally wrong.

One recent and notable exception to this protectionist trend is Virginia.  Eye doctors sent members of the state legislature an email making it clear that they knew of no one who had suffered any injury due to the technology.  In turn, the legislature passed a respectable bill, introduced by Delegate Peter Farrell (R), that puts safeguards in check so that consumers can begin using this revolutionary technology.

It's good to know that some legislatures recognize the major problem of states using protectionism to limit competition in certain markets.  Telemedicine is a step forward in the drive for convenient, affordable health care.  Let's hope that more politicians choose to do what's right for the consumers themselves, and not what makes sense for the greedy optometrists' bottom line.

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

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