Agency Supports Goal of Promoting Greater Competition
The Federal Trade Commission today told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that it supports the goal of promoting greater competition among contact lens sellers and enhancing consumer choice. Testifying on H.R.2221, the “Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act,” Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said,
“Competition among contact lens sellers benefits consumers through lower prices, greater convenience, and improved product quality.”
As the federal government’s principal consumer protection agency, the Commission increases consumer choice by promoting vigorous competition. The Commission has a long history of activity in the eye care industry, through law enforcement, advocacy before other government agencies, and rulemaking, the testimony states. In 1988, the FTC challenged advertising restrictions on eye care goods and services by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Optometry concluding that the restrictions didn’t serve any legitimate purpose and were anticompetitive. The agency ordered the board to stop restricting the advertising, thereby increasing competition among sellers, and reducing costs and increasing choice for consumers.
“Increased competition among sellers through advertising, however, does not benefit consumers if the claims made in the ads are false or misleading,” the testimony says. “To prevent such claims from being made in the marketplace, the FTC sued sellers who made deceptive advertising claims for eye care products. The testimony cites recent settlements with two of the largest LASIK eye surgery services that bar unsubstantiated claims that the surgery eliminates the need for glasses or contacts for life and that LASIK surgery is less risky than wearing contact lenses. “Our cases have enhanced the ability of consumers to make better-informed choices concerning eye care products,” Beales said.
The FTC has filed comments with state legislatures and licensing boards addressing proposals that could reduce choice or increase costs for consumers. It also promulgated the
Ophthalmic Practices Rule that requires optometrists and ophthalmologists to provide patients with a copy of their eyeglass prescription after completion of an eye exam at no extra cost. “The Rule was based on the Commission’s findings that many consumers were deterred from comparison shopping for eyeglasses because they did not receive a copy of their prescription,” the testimony says.
Beales noted that H.R.2221's central requirement is that sellers of contact lenses verify the accuracy of the consumer’s lens prescription with the optometrist or ophthalmologist who wrote the prescription. He noted that the bill does not impose a particular approach and that there are two primary approaches to verification: “passive” and “active” verification. Passive verification requires that the third party seller notify the party who provided the prescription and if the seller does not hear from the provider, he or she may assume there is no problem and fill the prescription. Active verification requires a response one way or another before the seller can fill the prescription. “The Commission believes that the bill should identity with specificity the type of verification system that would be required,” the testimony says.
The bill also would require that optometrists and ophthalmologists provide contact lens wearers with copies of their prescriptions. “More than two-thirds of the states already require that prescribers release contact lens prescriptions to patients . . . Moreover, a survey conducted by the Commission in 1995 indicated that most consumers who requested their prescription were able to obtain it. Although it is unclear to what extent consumers currently do not obtain their contact lens prescriptions, the Commission's experience with the prescription release requirements for eyeglasses suggests that the costs associated with such a requirement are likely to be quite low. Accordingly, the Commission does not oppose such a requirement,"
the testimony says.
The Commission vote to approve the testimony was 4-0-1 with Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour not participating.
Copies of the testimony are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1 877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Claudia Bourne Farrell
Office of Public Affairs
Thomas B. Pahl,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
(FTC File No. P994101)