By Andrew F. Quinlan –
Contact lenses are big business. A $4 billion industry, in fact. That’s not much of a surprise when you consider that an estimated 40 million Americans wear contacts. Also not a surprise: the fact that the industry’s biggest players are fighting to use government to limit choice and line their pockets at the expense of consumers.
Earlier this year, legislation called the “Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act of 2016” (S. 2777) was introduced in the Senate. Under the guise of consumer protections, it would roll back prior legislative efforts which saw the successful introduction of competition into the contact lens market.
Powerful groups that would benefit financially, like the American Optometry Association (AOA) and Johnson & Johnson, are backing the bill. Johnson & Johnson is the most dominant manufacturer of contact lenses, while the AOA represents Optometrists, who not only write prescriptions for lenses, but also make incentive-laden deals with manufacturers to sell from their offices the same brands they prescribe. Both are financially threatened by bulk retailers and online sellers offering consumers cheaper alternatives.
Before Congress acted in 2003 with passage of the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act (FCLCA), prescribers engaged in a variety of shady and anti-competitive behaviors. Sometimes they would not provide copies of the prescription after an exam, which patients need if they want to purchase their lenses elsewhere. Or if an independent seller called to verify the prescription – as they are required to do by law – prescribing offices would often drag out the process as long as possible, if not outright refuse to pick up the phone.