Opinion

Proposed Changes to Contact Lens Competition Undermine the Free Market

It is a basic principle of free markets that consumers are able to make decisions without government control over prices and purchasing choices.

From time to time, moneyed special interests try to erode this freedom based on vague “safety concerns.” Invariably, the solution they call for is government interference in the marketplace because of a pressing need to protect consumers. In actuality, the motivation behind these campaigns is to artificially force consumers into actions that benefit some industries over others.

This is precisely what is happening over contact lens purchasing choice with the misleadingly named “Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act,” legislation that erodes carefully crafted laws that ensure consumers can buy contact lenses from wherever they choose. Supporters claim that the legislation targets deceptive sales of contact lenses, yet it actually squeezes consumers to make it difficult, even impossible to purchase lenses from any non-optometrist third party.

At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing existing law governing contact lens competition, and lawmakers have buried language in the otherwise conservative Financial Services Appropriations bill that undermines contact lens consumer choice. Regulators should not follow the lead of lawmakers behind this deceptive legislative push and should instead ensure competition and consumer choice is preserved and protected.

Optometrists are unique in that they are one of the few medical professions that are allowed to both prescribe and then sell their product. While there should be no restriction on professionals selling the eye vision they prescribe, this opens the door to a conflict of interest where patients are restricted or denied the choice to purchase products because of bad advice or outright deception.

While many optometrists have and do act ethically, this is far from a hypothetical concern. There have been several well documented cases of bad actors conspiring to limit consumer choice and access to contact lenses for personal enrichment.

This conflict of interest was addressed in 2003, when lawmakers passed the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act, legislation that implemented passive verification for eye prescriptions. This law allowed patients the right to a written prescription without charge and without having to ask for one, so they had the freedom to shop where they wanted. Since passage, the law has been a success in ensuring optometrists cannot block or implicitly deny their patients consumer choice, in a way that balances the interests of all stakeholders involved.

In the decade since FCLCA passed, non-optometrist contact lens retailers have been closely monitored by the Federal Trade Commission, yet there is no evidence of adverse health effects caused by purchasing contact lenses from other sources.

In fact, existing law may actually increase public safety. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, the main safety concerns for the 40 million adult users of contact lenses include “keeping all water away from contact lenses, discarding used disinfecting solution from the case and cleaning with fresh solution each day, and replacing their contact lens case every 3 months.”

It is just common sense that reduced access and higher prices to the product will create an inconvenience at best, and a burden at worst for purchasers. This makes it less likely that they will replace lenses and equipment and more likely that they will put off making an appointment for a few more days or weeks. Conversely, preserving multiple avenues to purchase contact lenses ensure individuals are able to maintain proper eye health.

Existing law works. The Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act succeeded in eliminating barriers to competition in a way that empowered the free market so that consumers have the proper choice when purchasing contact lenses.

Lawmakers and federal regulators keep this in mind and ensure that competition in the contact lens market, and indeed all markets remain robust. Arbitrarily hindering any competitor, whether it be retailers or optometrists from competing based on flimsy safety concerns will only hurt consumers and worsen safety issues. Undoing this law will only lead to higher prices and reduced competition at the expense, not benefit of public safety.

 

Alexander Hendrie is federal affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer advocacy group founded in 1985 at President Reagan’s request.

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