This is a story about the power of who you know in Congress and Crony Capitalism at its worst. I’ve discussed contact lens issue before. It seems pretty simple to me. Millions of Americans wear contacts every day. Millions of Americans had previously been held captive by their eye doctor to only purchase lenses through them.
How did they do this? They controlled the supply by creating alliances with the manufacturers. Manufacturers agreed to sell only to the eye doctors at an inflated wholesale price and not directly to a consumer. Then the eye doctors controlled the distribution by controlling an individual’s prescription. For years, you couldn’t even have your prescription…it just stayed on file at your eye doctor’s office and you could only order your contacts from them. A perfectly trapped repeat customer as contacts rip and tear easily and are even designed to be disposable requiring you to constantly buy more. See the beauty in this system. It was a rigged game.
Well, finally in 2003, with a Republican controlled congress the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA) was passed. BOOM! The Republicans actually did something for the free markets.
This Act unleashed the free market competition pent up in the contact lens industry. Eye doctors were required to give their prescriptions to their patients who were then allowed to shop for the best priced contact lenses anywhere they wanted to. As a result, retail stores like Wal-Mart and online stores blossomed. Now more than a third of the total U.S. market is done online. This opening of the market also caused the prices of contacts to drop to all-time record lows as competition reigned. Econ 101 actually works and it’s awesome!
Cue the “Imperial March” (Darth Vader Music). You knew this kind of freedom couldn’t stand for long. The eye doctors and manufacturers won’t take this lying down. If they can’t beat the system fair and square…what do you do? Get a couple doctors elected to congress and then set out to re-write the laws and get rid of all that cool economic freedom. It’s all in who you know.
The Coalition for Patient Vision Care Safety, is the main lobbying group pushing for the old way to return. They are a coalition between contact lens manufacturer, Johnson and Johnson and the American Optometric Association. An unholy alliance of Docs and Manufacturers and they have found their huckleberry. Senator Bill Cassidy.
Senator Cassidy, a doc, has put forward his answer to freedom called the Contact Lens Consumer Health Act of 2016 (CLCHPA). This legislation effectively undoes the good changes to the contact lens free market by adding a stranglehold of bureaucracy and red tape to the process. It’s loaded with enough regulation and licensing to effectively drive out most of the new ways to get your contacts. Click here to read a summary of the worst points in the Cassidy bill. Thanks for nothing Senator!
I have two kids who burn through contacts like no tomorrow. I know this subject might only matter to those of us who are visually challenged, but it should matter to all love the free market, because it shows how our system is constantly gamed.
Those out to crush the contact lens free market are powerful. They have millions of lobbying dollars. And they aren’t satisfied waiting for their puppet Cassidy to get his bill passed. They’ve found an even sneakier way to get it done…add it into an appropriations bill. Big surprise. Back door legislation that almost no one will notice.
Language has been inserted into (S 3067), a bill to fund the Federal Trade Commission, that effectively accomplishes much of Cassidy’s goal…crush the competition with the weight of a burdensome government. This move was accomplished via Senator John Boozman, R-Ark, a former optometrist who oversees the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. Apparently, being a crony does cross party lines.
The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the language as it comes from people with conflicts of interest. Cassidy and Boozman. They see this issue only through the “Lens” of being optometrists, not simply free marketers and they are rewarding their own special interests.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology is also driving the claim that all this free marketing is unsafe for the consumers. They are pushing a false claim that “Keratitis”, an infection of the eyes, is more common for consumers who order their contacts online. NOT TRUE! You still have to have a prescription from an eye doctor. You simply don’t have to order your lenses from that doctor. If the eye doctor is doing his job…no Keratitis.
Dr. Paul B. Donzis, an Ophthalmology Prof at UCLA tried to explain this in a letter to Cassidy. “Based on authoritative scientific articles, it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in incidence of contact related injury.”
There you have it. Ordering your contacts is much cheaper online and absolutely safe.
Too bad the cronies in Washington won’t leave it alone. If they were selling contacts in their doctor’s office for a good price they would still be getting the business. It’s called competition and it’s the American way.
Sadly, the American way also includes power players trying to influence legislation to crush freedom.
[Note: This column has been modified since original posting.]