Any time you have to purchase a product and you can only get it from a particular seller, you can expect to pay a high price for it. This was traditionally the way consumers purchased contact lenses. After an eye examination, and prescription for contact lenses, a consumer would have to get them from the eye doctor’s office at whatever price they want to charge for them. Then the independent vendors came on the scene, who bought contact lenses at wholesale prices to pass the savings along to consumers. This allowed patients to get their contact lenses without buying them for high prices at the eye doctor’s office. But the eye doctors and their trade group don’t like this.
The trade association representing the Optometrists is the American Optometry Association (AOA). The AOA, which represents the Optometrists’ interests in selling more contact lenses, has put out the message that contact lenses purchased from the vendors are less safe than those purchased at the eye doctor’s office. The AOA and contact lens makers such as Alcon, Bausch & Lomb, CooperVision, and Johnson & Johnson have created a front group for this campaign to limit consumer choices on the false safety claim, called The Coalition for Patient Vision Care Safety. The notion that purchasing contact lenses from eye care practitioners rather than elsewhere is more safe has been debunked.
One of the prominent supporters of the AOA position on these issues, a large manufacturer of contact lenses, Johnson & Johnson that has about a 40 percent market share in the industry, spent about $6.4 million last year to lobby for regulations on contact lens sales on the debunked claim that contact lenses sold by online vendors are somehow less safe than those sold at higher prices by Optometrists.
The Coalition for Patient Care Safety is pushing for Congress to enact the “Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act“ (S. 2777), a bill that would impose a complex set of regulations on all the contact lens vendors other than eye doctors offices. This legislation would impose draconian regulations, including restrictions related to verifying prescriptions and communicating with eye doctors offices, that would raise vendors’ cost of doing business and undercut their ability to pass savings along to customers. With these regulations in place, consumers would have fewer choices and would be more likely to find they might have to purchases contact lenses from eye care practitioners.
The argument for consumer safety is a bogus claim to get politicians to pass the legislation to restrict consumer choices in contact lens purchases. A 1997 investigation by 17 state attorneys general found this claim to be false. Contact lenses purchases from eye care providers were no more safe than those purchased from the independent vendors. The restriction sought will not improve safety; they will only limit consumer choices.
In 1996, 32 state attorneys general sued the AOA and the three largest manufacturers of contact lenses for allegedly not providing consumers with their prescriptions, blocking them from being able to purchase from other contact lens vendors. They lawsuits alleged the AOA and the manufacturers engaged in anti-competitive actions to make it tougher for vendors to sell contact lenses at wholesale prices.
It is clear the goal of the AOA, and those who support it on this issue, are simply working to limit consumer choices in purchasing contact lenses to force them to be buy from the eye doctor’s office instead. This will benefit eye care practitioners at the expense of their patients, who will then have few choices and pay more for contact lenses again. Competition among providers, giving the buyers more choices, always lowers prices and improves the quality of customer service.