More than 40 million U.S. consumers benefit from contact lens competition. Demand for contact lenses has been growing over the past decade, and there are more places for consumers to shop for contact lenses and refill their prescriptions – in-person from eye-care providers, optical chains, and wholesale clubs, and on-line as well. Innovation has improved the comfort and convenience of contact lenses, and many people have switched from one-year lenses to daily disposable lenses.
Operating in the background to protect contact lens consumers’ access to competitive prices, convenience, and quality has been a federal law, the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act. Under the FCLCA, the FTC adopted the Contact Lens Rule, which has been in place since 2004 and requires that consumers receive a written portable prescription at the completion of a contact lens fitting.
The crux of the Contact Lens Rule has always been a simple requirement: When a prescriber – an eye doctor – completes a patient assessment and contact lens fitting, the prescriber must provide the patient with a complete, fillable, copy of his or her prescription – automatically, and at no extra charge. The patient – a contact lens consumer – then gets to choose where to buy the lenses: if the eye doctor happens to sell contact lenses, the consumer can buy lenses on the spot if she chooses, but she always has the option to shop around for better prices or more convenient refills with the Rx in hand.
Some prescribing eye doctors routinely provided prescriptions to patients, even before the Contact Lens Rule. But some didn’t and still don’t; they refuse to release prescriptions, even when consumers ask, or charge an extra fee just to hand the prescription over. After a careful review of the Contact Lens Rule and its impact on consumers, prescribers, and the industry, the FTC is now proposing a change to make the Rule more effective.
Portable written prescriptions are key to vigorous contact lens competition. Prices for lenses vary, but without a prescription, it’s hard for consumers to shop around to see which seller best meets their needs for price, service, and convenience. And without the pressure from comparison shopping, retail sellers are less likely to compete on price, convenience, or anything else; and manufacturers, in turn, are less likely to develop the range of products that consumers want and can afford. There’s a health and safety risk to less competition too: when replacement lenses and other products are too expensive or difficult to obtain, more people tend to over-use their old lenses and solutions in ways that can lead to eye infections.
So why change the Contact Lens Rule? Based on evidence reviewed by staff, too many prescribers fail to follow the law and provide portable prescriptions. With the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the Commission is proposing to add a requirement that prescribers obtain a simple signed acknowledgement form from patients. The form has many benefits: it reminds prescribers to release prescriptions, informs patients of their rights, reduces misunderstandings, and improves the Commission’s verification and enforcement ability. The patient will still receive the prescription automatically, but now the patient will be asked – not required – to sign a very brief paper or electronic form acknowledging receipt of the prescription. If the patient refuses to sign, the prescriber simply notes the refusal on the form. The forms are maintained for at least three years, so that the FTC can better identify where and how frequently problems occur, and can better investigate what actually happened when there are consumer complaints.
Portable prescriptions drive competition in contact lens markets, and the proposed revisions to the Contact Lens Rule will get portable prescriptions in the hands of more consumers.