The Contact Lens Market Is Anything But Free

Steve Sherman
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Posted: Mar 29, 2016 11:23 AM
The Contact Lens Market Is Anything But Free

I was once a 15-year-old kid in driver’s education class. My teacher said turn left on 8th Avenue. I squinted with all my might…I recognized it at the last second and turned sharply. Needless to say, my teacher wasn’t impressed and suggested I get my eyes checked. I was devastated.

Visions of being made fun of, or looking stupid raced through my teen mind. My life was going horribly. My eye appointment went even worse. Sure enough, I’d inherited my mom’s poor eyesight. We picked out frames for glasses and then the Doc asked if I’d be interested in trying soft contacts? They were new and much better than the old “hard” ones. Perfect vision with no glasses? Sign me up. Contacts were a teenagers dream.

I didn’t care if I had to clean them, soak them in acid, turn them inside out, put them in, and pull them out. Anything to avoid glasses. Actual costs…I didn’t care about, because my mom and dad were paying.

A few years later, I began to care about that cost as it had been shifted to me. Ironic, that I sit here so many years later writing about the cost of contacts. I had Lasik surgery 20 years ago and gave up contacts entirely. However, Lasik doesn’t stop the DNA! Two of my kids are putting contacts in and taking them out every night…and who’s paying for that? Me.

You can imagine how interested I was when I found out that the high cost of contacts was a result of a manipulated system. A rigged game! I was outraged. I dug into it and here’s the deal.

The buying and selling of contact lenses are an example of how not to have a free market. Supply and demand have been tossed out the window. In a healthy system, competition is the force that drives down prices for consumers. Not so, in the contact lens world. Currently, the contact lens manufacturers make it very difficult for you to purchase contact lenses at a reasonable price. How do they do that?

Simple. Control access, which is a form of controlling supply. This is achieved through a coordinated effort between suppliers of lenses and the Optometrist. A good reform that would greatly help consumers would be to make sure that patients automatically get a prescription given to them after each exam. They are your eyes! You shouldn’t have to beg the eye doctor for the prescription, but usually you do. Why? So you can’t go shop for the best price like you would with any other product.

Compare the United States to Japan or many European countries, they don’t even require a prescription for a lens. A person can get examined and then they can purchase the desired eye glasses or contact lenses without having to have a prescription for a fraction of what we pay. Our system is rigged in favor of the big contact lens manufacturers who are in cahoots with the Optometrist to make the consumer pay a higher price. In this one case…Europeans are more free market than Americans. Shameful.

Next problem. We have very limited choice as to where you can purchase lenses. You can’t just go to the pharmacy with your prescription and price out different brands. No way! Manufacturers have made deals with Optometrist to make it very hard to shop for lenses, creating a captive market. It’s much easier to control a market like this. Pet medications are similar. Ever notice that you can’t purchase pet meds in a local store. All pet meds come from your animal doctor. Again, no options, means prices go up…way up.

How about brands? You may have noticed with contact lenses; you get no choice of brands. How about a generic version of contact lenses? It works for drugs; it will work with lenses too. Competition kills collusion. Manufacturers and the eye docs don’t want competition or a free market environment, with the current system, they’re making too much bank!

On March, 9, 2016, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) held a hearing titled “Oversight of the Enforcement of the Antitrust Laws.” It’s time for the DoJ and FTC to intervene in the name of cheap vision! Congress should not allow the giants of the contact lens industry to game the system and make consumers into common criminals if they make a paperwork error when they attempt to purchase contact lenses.

A few common sense changes to the law and enforce existing law that prevents collusion, and the prices will drop like crazy, while choices skyrocket. A true free market contact lens policy will lead to new generic alternatives to the big named brands, and will encourage what is currently stifled, innovation and competition.