2003-03-08 / Community

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey PhefferAudrey Pheffer

The legendary Johnny Nash once sang, "I can see clearly now." Well, he may have been one of the luckier ones. Clear sight has become more difficult to come by because of a discrepancy in federal law with regard to prescriptions for eyeglasses and contacts. Although federal law mandates that eye care specialists provide eyeglass prescriptions to patients, eye care specialists are not required by federal law to release a copy of a patient’s contact lens prescription to that individual.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Ophthalmic Practice Rule ("Prescription Release Rule") requires eye doctors to release eyeglass prescriptions to patients without requiring the patient to pay a fee. With prescription in hand, a patient may "shop around" to find the lowest price on a pair of glasses. However, a patient who would like to comparison shop for contact lenses may not be afforded that opportunity. Instead, the contact lens wearer may be compelled to purchase contact lenses only at the physician or optometrist’s office. As a result, many patients pay high prices for contact lenses when more affordable alternatives are available. It is important for consumers to comparison shop to find brands and prices on products that are most suitable for our individual needs.

An eyewear distributor is required to verify that a consumer’s prescription is accurate. In most cases, the only way to do so is to actually see the prescription or to call the physician or optometrist to verify information. Since many eye care professionals also sell contact lenses, it is in their financial interest not to release the prescription to the patient who will take it and order contact lenses from an inexpensive source. As a result, patients are spending more money than necessary on contact lenses, and they have limited choices for brand preference and quality. Eyeglass wearers, however, are not subject to this restriction. They may take their prescriptions to any low-cost eyeglass distributor and have their prescriptions filled.

This incongruity between contact lenses and eyeglasses is attributable to nothing more than a "quirk in the law," as stated by United States Senator Charles Schumer. This "quirk" is the fact that the FTC regulation was enacted in 1973; the regulation was not extended to contact lenses because they had recently emerged in the marketplace.

In order to eliminate this disparity, I have introduced bill A.3057. This bill will require physicians and optometrists to provide patients with their contact lens prescriptions upon request. The bill also will impose civil penalties on physicians or optometrists who do not release contact lens prescriptions to patients who request them.

Many states already have provisions in their state laws requiring contact lens prescriptions to be readily available to consumers upon request. Consumers in New York State should be given the same latitude to choose eye care based not only on where they can find inexpensive contact lenses, but also on the quality of eye care received and on the level of services provided.

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