Better Keep an Eye on Senate Appropriators

Better Keep an Eye on Senate Appropriators
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The House and Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittees are currently on opposite sides of a consumer rights battle that may have long-term implications for low-income Americans’ health-care choices. Lobbyists sometimes make it difficult for our representatives to see clearly. But in this case, a false narrative is blurring working-class Americans’ vision — literally.

A recent Consumer Action survey found that nearly 30 percent of Americans are not receiving their eye prescriptions, even though it is required by a 2003 consumer protection law, which passed with near congressional unanimity. As a result, many Americans are forced into purchasing more expensive contact lenses from specialists’, rather than from discount stores such as Walmart or Costco. These inflated price tags have likely caused some Americans — 46 percent of whom cannot afford the $400 expense — to forego buying contact lenses altogether.

Consumer advocacy organizations and the FTC — the leading, independent consumer protection arm of the federal government — believe that the solution is to have eye specialists provide patients with a sign-and-file form that verifies exam practitioners’ adherence to the law. Seemingly fearing transparency, the American Optometric Association (AOA), a D.C. lobbying organization, dismisses the magnitude of the problem, claiming that the FTC’s proposed solution would amount to nothing more than a costly paperwork nightmare for health-care offices.

The House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, led by Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), undertook an open, careful markup process to ensure the FTC's proposal benefits consumers rather than lobbyists. By contrast, the Senate subcommittee, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), came to a decision that swept these accountability concerns under the rug. And it did so behind closed doors, entertaining little to no debate.

The AOA contends that there is a “near-zero percentage of consumer complaints” at the FTC regarding eye specialists’ non-compliance. And yet the problem persists. In its 10-year review of the Contact Lens Rule, the commission received numerous consumer complaints. That’s a small number in relation to the net sum of comments, but a stark acknowledgment that a loophole exists. And it’s a staggering total when you consider just how foreign the law is to most American families. So the need for more transparency and accountability in exam offices should not be open for debate.

Furthermore, in an attempt to strike a chord with some conservative lawmakers, the AOA noted that filing such a form for three years could cost individual offices thousands of dollars annually. This estimate makes for a good talking point, but it carries little weight when considering how the private firm that was paid to construct the study succumbed to biases for its cost estimates and surveyed AOA members.

Among the most eyebrow-raising of the AOA’s claims is that it may take over three minutes for the average American to sign the form. The FTC found this estimate to be off by at least 120 seconds. More specifically, the Commission determined it would only take about a minute for hard copies that require scanning, while e-copies would add little to no burden on offices. 

Adding a little bit of sunlight to the exam process should in no way harm eye specialists. Having consumers fill out a single sheet of paper should not pose much of a cost burden, and any nominal added costs associated with training office personnel to comply with the law should have already occurred 13 years ago. But late is always better than never. The FTC and House of Representatives subcommittee deserve praise for coming to the right conclusion by taking the time needed to examine both sides’ arguments.

Hide-and-seek games have no place in Washington legislation. Sen. Capito’s subcommittee may have been harmlessly trying to expedite the bill’s approval process, but in doing so, it glossed over essential case materials, prioritizing lobbyists’ interest over those of low-income West Virginians and Americans.

Sen. Capito and the rest of the Senate subcommittee should take a step back, fact-check their materials, and follow the House’s lead so that the most vulnerable of the country’s 41 million contact lens wearers can finally get their prescriptions.

 Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies, an independent, nonpartisan effort that promotes free enterprise. He’s the co-host of The LangerCast on the RELM Network. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.

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