By Dean Chambers –
There’s nothing that Americans hate more than government-sponsored cartels. They distort the market and rig the American economy by enriching a select few individuals at the expense of everyone else. That’s something that no one in America, the freest nation on earth, should have to tolerate.
Up until recently, eye doctors held the keys to one of these savored Washington monopolies in the contact lens industry. Ophthalmologists were allowed to hold back their patients’ prescriptions so that they could manipulate what brand of contacts their customers could purchase, as well as who they could buy lenses from. Often, this meant that consumers would be subjugated to purchase them from their doctors’ personal office or his favored distributor.
Thankfully, the Republican-controlled Congress tore back this eye industry cartel in 2003 by passing The Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA). This bill unleashed free-market competition in the industry for the first time by mandating that prescribers provide their patients with copies of their prescriptions. As a result, Americans now have the freedom to shop around elsewhere for lenses. Individuals are no longer faced with the false choice of purchasing contacts from either their ophthalmologist or one of his crony manufacturers — they can now pick them up online or in Wal-Mart just as easily. And — of course — consumers are taking advantage of this freedom. Online and retail sales now account for more than a third of the total U.S. contact lens market.
Contact lens wearers couldn’t be happier. This surge in free-market competition has brought the cost of lenses down to record lows, allowing more people to afford lenses than ever before. But while this opening of the market has enthused consumers, it has, not surprisingly, upset eye doctors — and they are making their grievances heard. Since FCLCA’s passage, the Coalition for Patient Vision Care Safety — a group consisting of contact lens manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, the American Optometric Association, and other members of the eye industry cartel — have continually lobbied Congress to repeal the legislation.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a fellow doctor, has answered their door-knocks with open arms. He recently introduced the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act of 2016 (CLCHPA), a bill which would artificially raise eye doctors’ market share by strangling their third-party competition. This legislation would require that all contact lens vendors — including online ones — provide a phone number, fax number, and email address to prescribers so doctors can ask questions. The mandate would allow eye doctors to harass online lens companies with needless queries to indefinitely delay the sale of lenses.
In a recent op-ed, Pete Sepp, President of the National Taxpayers Union, detailed the worst parts of the Cassidy bill:
- Eye examiners could more easily block requests from lens retailers to verify patient prescriptions;
- New bureaucracies at the Department of Health and Human Services would have an expanded role in investigating these products. Adding more federal agencies into the mix for “oversight” of contact lenses is the last thing Americans need; and
- Startup online or mail-order outlets hoping to compete with established retailers would have more trouble entering a narrower market.
Cassidy rejects these assertions and claims that the objective of his bill is not to limit competition, but to protect consumers’ safety. Unfortunately, the empirical evidence does not match up with his rhetoric. Dr. Paul B. Donzis, a professor of ophthalmology at UCLA, made this point clear in a recent letter that he wrote to the Senator. “Based on…authoritative scientific articles,” he exclaimed, “it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens related [injury].”