Lobbyists Hope Lawmakers Will See ‘Eye to Eye’ on Special Favors

Jerry Rogers
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Posted: Jun 23, 2017 12:10 AM
Lobbyists Hope Lawmakers Will See ‘Eye to Eye’ on Special Favors

Keep an eye on Washington this week as the American Optometric Association (AOA) – an advocacy group that spends nearly $2 million a year lobbying on the federal level alone – is flying thousands of its representatives to Washington to pressure lawmakers into backing their crony legislation.

These eye-care professionals are afraid that cost-cutting, vision-care apps are going to eat into their bottom line, so they’re trying to cozy up to Washington decision-makers in an attempt to ban the competition. It’s crony capitalism on full display.

With the simple use of a phone or tablet, apps such as Opternative, Simple Contacts, and GlassesOn allow users to adjust their eye prescriptions from the comfort of their own homes. A board-certified ophthalmologist then signs off on the results, giving patients the freedom to shop for lenses anywhere they choose.

From a cost standpoint, these apps serve an important purpose. The average cost of a visit to an eye-care professional is $200 for an initial visit and $128 for an established patient. Now, these new apps allow consumers to receive a lens prescription for as low as $40. This is a relief for most Americans, especially when considering that 46% of the country can’t afford to shell out money for an unexpected $400 emergency expense.

The price estimates for an optometrist visit don’t factor into the cost of lenses when purchasing directly from their office—the lenses are extra. Eye-care professionals are unique in that they are some of the only specialists that sell what they prescribe. But, studies have shown that close to one-third of doctors refuse to obey existing law, which mandates that they give patients copies of their prescriptions so they can shop around. Oftentimes, the big-lens brands give themkickbacks on the sale of lenses made within their offices, incentivizing medical specialists to coerce patients into purchasing expensive brands directly from them at inflated prices.

These innovative apps are a foolproof solution for stopping these eye-care monopoly shell games. And, they are bringing eye-care into the twenty-first century. That’s precisely why the optometrist groups are spending so much time in Washington, to bolster their regulatory capture over the industry.

The AOA is actively looking for Members of Congress to re-introduce their crony legislation, the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act (CLCHPA). This bill is the first step in the AOA plan to completely ban third-party lens sellers, such as Walmart, Costco, and a multitude of online sellers. This is cronyism run amok. If passed, CLCHPA will give eye-care specialists the unlimited power to veto prospective third-party transactions. Current law provides a window for specialists to act. However, CLCHPA will give the AOA the control to pocket-veto transactions by simply refusing to respond to the patient’s request. 

These optometrists are pushing their self-interest over patients’ interests. What’s worse is that they are defending this blatant cronyism on ‘safety’ grounds. The AOA is claiming that the reason they support more regulations over the contact lens environment is for the wellbeing of their patients. “[They] will give contact lens wearers peace of mind, protecting them from dishonest online sellers whose unscrupulous tactics can cause patient harm and increase health care costs,” saidAOA President Andrea P. Thau, O.D. However, labeling their competition as deceptive is a lobbying ploy to pressure lawmakers into banning their competition. The AOA wants more regulations – just on their competition. If you can’t beat them, ban them.

The AOA’s spin is missing a critical reality. Patients using telemedicine need to get comprehensive eye health exams in-person once every two years; they simply don’t have to go to the eye doctor’s office every time a lens refill is needed. Even the AOA acknowledges that once every two years is all that is necessary for healthy adults.

Not all eye-care professionals are willing to play into the AOA’s hand. “The AOA is terrible and nothing but a lobbying force for regulatory capture,” said Stephen Dincher, an optometrist practicing in the state of Connecticut. Dr. Paul Donzis shares this skepticism over the AOA’s true intentions. "Based on ... authoritative scientific articles,” he said, “it appears that online sales of contact lenses have not contributed to any increase in the incidence of contact lens-related ... eye health problems." It’s good to know that there are still plenty of medical specialists out there who are putting their patients first.

The ‘eye and mighty’ AOA is not seeing things straight when it comes to banning their competition. The Republican-controlled Congress can’t let this crony eyesore be pushed through on their watch.