WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - A group of contact lens retailers and consumers stand in sharp disagreement with groups calling for legislation changing the way a retailer verifies a prescription with an eye doctor.
Anyone who wants to buy contact lenses must have a prescription. An eye doctor is required to give a copy of the prescription to a patient automatically so the patient can shop around for the best price. In turn, the retailer is required to verify the prescription with the eye doctor before filling the order.
Currently, the law allows for passive verification, which means a prescription is verified if the prescriber doesn’t respond to the seller within eight business hours.
The Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act of 2016, introduced in April by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), would allow prescribers to interrupt the passive verification process when they have a question or concern about the prescription. In those cases, the seller would have to wait until the prescriber gives the go-ahead.
The bill also would set up a toll-free number and email in which prescribers can ask questions.
The legislation would reverse progress made by the Fairness for Contact Lens Consumers Act enacted in 2003, Cindy Williams, general counsel for 1-800 Contacts, told Legal Newsline. Williams also represents the Coalition for Contact Lens Consumer Choice, which focuses on maintaining the current law, which ensures consumers can buy contacts from alternative retailers.
“Alternative retailers like 1-800 Contacts, Lens.com and Costco Wholesale have been transforming the contact lens marketplace, allowing consumers to get their lenses faster and at affordable prices,” she said. “These businesses represent innovative industry disrupters, similar to how Uber and AirBnb have disrupted the taxi and hotel industries.
“Our policymakers should be considering policies that encourage such pro-consumer innovation, not proposing legislation that would roll back consumer protections in current law.”
The coalition supports the current verification process.
Despite doctors’ claims that they often receive requests to verify prescriptions that are expired or false, Williams said only one retailer has ever been fined the $16,000 penalty for selling contacts without a prescription.
In April, the Federal Trade Commission issued letters to 45 prescribers and 10 sellers of contact lenses, warning them that they may be violating the the law.
“If there are such violations, we agree that they should be reported to the FTC and the law should be enforced,” Williams said.
She added that 1-800 Contacts has never been fined and it turns down $60 million worth of orders every year because of invalid or expired prescriptions.
Williams said optometrists’ work is important and many doctors mitigate any conflicts of interest by not selling contact lenses. Others follow the rules. But for those who “take advantage of their position as both a prescriber and a retailer to unfairly compete,” the coalition wants to see the FTC increase its enforcement of the law.
Eye doctors argue patient health is at the heart of efforts to change the rules of verification. Because contacts are medical devices, they believe consumers, prescribers and sellers should take more responsibility in how they’re dispensed.
The coalition claims this is a line that’s meant to veil the larger concern: Drawing consumers to buy from doctors’ offices instead. Across the industry, optometrists earn up to 70 percent of their revenue by selling glasses and contacts, Williams said.
“In an effort to increase profits from contact lens sales for optometrists, the American Optometric Association has made claims about the supposed health dangers from purchasing contact lens from alternative retailers. These claims have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked,” Williams said.
“Since the FCLCA was enacted in 2003, alternative contact lens retailers have been closely monitored by the FTC without any evidence of adverse consumer health effects attributed to the purchase of contact lenses from these retailers.”
Williams noted people who buy contacts from online retailers follow manufacterers’ suggested guidelines at higher levels. They also see their eye doctor as frequently as people who purchase their contacts from their eye doctor directly.