Dr. Newman to FTC: Federal CL Law Must Better Protect Patients from Unscrupulous Sellers

October 11, 2012

When U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) officials recently convened an expert panel on the Contact Lens Rule during a day-long workshop about how to deregulate the sale of prescription pet medications, Clarke Newman, O.D., a member of the AOA Federal Relations Committee, travelled to Washington, D.C. to tell the commission that it wasn’t doing enough to protect Americans from the dangers posed by unscrupulous Internet and alternate distribution contact lens sellers.  

As part of the FTC’s Oct. 3 workshop, the commission gathered together consumers, veterinarians, business representatives, and others to consider how current industry distribution and other practices affect consumer choice and price competition for pet medications. Following the day’s final panel looking into lessons learned from the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA), Dr. Newman challenged alternate distribution lens sellers to fix their broken prescription verification system which continues to put patients at risk.

“Without the full enforcement of the FCLCA, lenses are frequently purchased without prescriptions or with expired prescriptions,” Dr. Newman said in his opening remarks. “When a patient’s ability to purchase a medical device that is worn on the eye is not properly controlled, the public is harmed.” Alternate distribution lens sellers have exploited the flawed “passive verification” system to their benefit and to the detriment of consumers, Dr. Newman added after the panel. In the interest of public health, he called on them to fix their broken verification system.

Soon after the forum started, though, one anti-optometry panelist directly attacked optometry by calling into question optometry’s ethical standing. Dr. Newman was quick to make clear that ODs ascribe to the highest ethical standards and that both prescribing and selling contact lenses provides no more of a conflict of interest than it does for an ophthalmologist advising a patient that surgery is needed to insert an intraocular lens or a cardiologist recommending a procedure in which the patient would receive a stent.   

Overall, the anti-optometry tirade began when a 1-800-CONTACTS representative asserted that tens of thousands of Texas patients had allegedly filed complaints saying that their optometrists were not releasing prescriptions as required under Texas law. 1-800-CONTACTS then used the supposed complaints to spur Texas lawmakers into introducing legislation and organizing a hearing on the issue. However, as a 2001 Houston Chronicle article illustrated, the company was actually providing financial incentives to customers willing to complain. And as a result, the Texas Senate cancelled the hearing and shelved the pending legislation.  

AOA Representative Clarke Newman, O.D. (second from left)

Dr. Newman then went on the offensive during the FTC panel and cited a peer-reviewed study published in the journal, Optometry, to disprove other claims made by 1-800-CONTACTS. In opening remarks, the company’s general counsel claimed that contact lens wearers were actually receiving more comprehensive eye exams each year as a direct result of the FCLCA. Dr. Newman cited a 2008 study showing that three-out-of-four consumers that purchased contact lenses over the Internet did not have annual eye examinations. Conversely, 74 percent of those who purchased lenses directly from their eye care provider were receiving annual examinations.

At one point during the more than hour-long panel, a self-proclaimed advocate for the Internet on the panel claimed that the potential financial benefits far outweighed the costs associated with microbial keratitis and other sight-threatening complications which have been directly linked to alternate lens distribution.  After making his claim, the panelist was unable to respond to Dr. Newman’s direct question asking how many billions of dollars would justify his child suffering from permanent vision loss as a result of microbial keratitis.

While the attacks on optometry continued, Dr. Newman never wavered from optometry’s true focus: patient safety. “With this information, I think legislators and regulators should carefully consider the potential risks to the patients when trying to assess the manner and level of consumer protections placed,” said Dr. Newman. “When combined with the very low bar that is passive verification and all of the abuses endured by prescribers there, the FCLCA is far too weighted toward consumerism over patient protection. We threw the baby out with the bath water.”

Enacted in 2004, the FCLCA requires eye care providers release contact lens prescriptions to their patients and also requires contact lens sellers to verify the validity of contact lens prescriptions before releasing contact lenses to consumers. Since enactment of the law, AOA, FTC, and Congress have documented widespread abuse by unscrupulous Internet contact lens sellers and an alarming increase in patient safety concerns. In fact, a 2008 study found that one of the strongest predictors of developing microbial keratitis was buying lenses through the Internet or other alternative channels of distribution.

AOA members are encouraged to watch Dr. Newman in action during the recent FCLCA panel discussion on the FTC’s web site at: http://1.usa.gov/QrTZqk. AOA members are also reminded that they may report FCLCA violations directly to the FTC and are asked to forward copies of any complaints to the AOA at: FTCcomplaint@aoa.org. AOA resources on this topic, including how to spot FCLCA violations and file a complaint, are located on the AOA web site at:  http://www.aoa.org/x4843.xml.

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