A new federal law will make it easier -- though far from effortless -- for consumers to get a copy of their contact lens prescription, enabling them to shop around for the best deal on their contacts, rather than being compelled to buy them from their optometrist. But it will keep consumers traipsing back to their optometrist for a $100 yearly exam, whether they need it or not.
The "Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act," passed by Congress last year, requires that optometrists and ophthalmologists give patients a copy of their prescriptions after a fitting and verify those prescriptions to any third party designated by the patient, such as an online lens seller.
Many optometrists have previously refused to make the prescriptions available, hoping to prevent their customers from going to discount lens outlets.
Congress was heavily lobbied by optometrists during its consideration of the measure, and those able to read the fine print will discover that in 42 states, optometrists can refuse to pass along a prescription if it is more than a year old. The limit is two years in the other eight states.
Thus, while optometrists may have lost their grip on the sale of contact lenses, they have gained an annuity that will keep patients coming back once a year to renew their prescriptions. There are 36 million contact lens wearers in the U.S. At about $100 per exam, that's $3.6 billion in guaranteed revenue for the optometrists.
Most lens discounters say the one-year limit is unnecessary. Optometrists disagree but have a hard time saying why. Dr. Victor Connors, president of the American Optometric Association, said a yearly exam simply reflects the "standard of care."
Asked if he knew of any studies that mandated such exams, he told The New York Times: "I haven't seen any health care studies on that, but I'm sure they've done them."
Optometrists' stalling tactics to date have not only caused consumers to pay artificially high prices for their contacts, they have also kept the discount lens business from taking off at the rapid pace that investors and consumer advocates had hoped for.
1-800-Contacts says it lost a huge amount of business in five states that, before the federal law was passed, required verification of prescriptions.
Here are the details of the Federal Trade Commission's "final rule" sets out the ground rules under which the law will be implemented. It:
• Requires prescribers (such as optometrists and ophthalmologists) to provide patients with a copy of their contact lens prescription immediately upon completion of a contact lens fitting;
• Requires prescribers to provide or verify contact lens prescriptions to any third party designated by a patient;
• Prohibits prescribers from placing certain conditions on the release or verification of a contact lens prescription;
• Requires contact lens sellers either to obtain a copy of a patients prescription or verify the prescription before selling contact lenses, and deems a prescription verified if, among other things, a prescriber fails to respond to a sellers verification request within eight business hours; and
• Establishes minimum expiration dates for contact lens prescriptions.
The final Rule also allows third-party sellers flexibility in communicating with prescribers and requires sellers to keep records of all direct communications with prescribers.