By Tim Devaney –
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has triggered a major lobbying battle with a proposal that would make it easier for people to purchase contacts over the internet.
Eye doctors say patients who buy contacts online put their vision at risk, but internet retailers such as 1-800-CONTACTS and Lens.com claim they offer more affordable prices for the same lenses without compromising safety.
The FTC’s revision of the contact lens rule threatens to shake up the $4.6 billion industry.
“The public has no idea you can buy contact lenses online,” said Cary Samourkachian, founder of Lens.com. “Sometimes patients ask me if it’s legal. They think the only place they can buy contacts is from their eye doctor.”
Eye doctors hold all the power, Samourkachian said, because they write the prescriptions their patients need to purchase contact lenses.
“They are one of the only healthcare providers who sell what they prescribe,” Samourkachian said. “If you go to a regular doctor, they don’t walk you out into the lobby and sell you medicine.”
“That’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he said.
The FTC is aiming to level the playing field so the nearly 41 million Americans who wear contact lenses can choose whether to buy from their eye doctor or online. The commission is combing through more than 4,000 comments on the rule.
But it is unclear what impact the transition to the Trump administration will have on the regulatory push, given that President Trump is set to appoint three new commissioners who will take control of the independent agency.
Since 2004, the FTC has required eye doctors to provide patients with a copy of their prescription, even if they don’t request it, so they can shop online for better prices.
But critics question just how closely optometrists follow the rule. A survey from -1-800-CONTACTS found that one-third of people who wear contact lenses never received a copy of their prescription.
Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, called them “captive customers.”
“They don’t have any choice whatsoever to seek out cheaper contact lenses,” he said.
To address that, the FTC is proposing that eye doctors obtain signed consent from their patients confirming that they received a copy of their prescription.
The FTC says this small tweak will encourage consumers to shop for better prices and more convenience. But it could have major ramifications for the contact lens industry, driving sales from eye doctors to online retailers, which currently account for less than 20 percent of the market.