Cronyism, Consumers, and Contact Lenses

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According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the pandemic has led to a growing number of children who are experiencing vision problems. The increased screen time from virtual school has led to increases in myopia, or nearsightedness. This has been attributed to spending large amounts of time looking at screens held very close to the eyes, rather than learning in person. With a growing number of Americans facing increased eye problems, now is the time for Federal and State governments to take action and work to lower the prices of contacts.

Alcon, a multi-national contact lens producer, has been engaging in Unilateral Pricing Policies. Essentially, they are setting a minimum price for retailers. Discount sellers like Lens.com and 1-800Contacts are in the crosshairs of big corporations as well as Eye Care Practitioners (ECPs) and optometrists. In fact, Lens.com is currently being sued by Alcon over a phony trademark infringement issue. The plaintiff’s argument is that the lenses that are being sold are unsafe, which is nonsense – a baseless claim. On the contrary, the lawsuit has nothing to do with FDA approval or patient safety. It is really about the ability of these retailers to sell their products at a lower price.

For consumers who require contact lenses, they must obtain a prescription and then purchase their contact lenses from ECPs. Or, consumers can go to discounter sites, like Lens.com or 1800Contacts.com. These discounters – a Gray Market – allow consumers a choice at a better price point. Without the gray market, patients would be compelled to purchase their lenses only big from ECPs. And consider this, as more patients are forced to buy their lenses from an ECP as opposed to a discount retailer, ECPs are more likely to prescribe lenses from Alcon which means higher prices for patients and more sales for Alcon.

Alcon’s argument in their frivolous legal case against Lens.com is that the lenses being sold pose a danger to the consumer. This is by no means a new argument, so much so that the American Optometrist Association (AOA) was warned by the Attorney General not to make baseless claims about the safety of lenses from discount sellers as a condition in a 2003 lawsuit similar to the current one.

It’s a common crony tactic – big business leveraging their size, power, and wealth gain advantage over discounters and start-ups, and consumers are paying the (higher) price as a result. Consume choice shouldn’t be at the whim of companies like Alcon. Such anti-competitive, crony policies are the reason why Americans overpay for needed prescriptions. 

Organizations like the Coalition for Contact Lens Consumer Choice have been battling crony practices from major producers since the early 1990s. When 32 state Attorney Generals accused the big companies of colluding with ECPs, at the time preventing the release of prescriptions to discount pharmacies and mail order retailers, big business lost and had to pay 90 million dollars in damages.  In 2016, Congress attempted to pass the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act, which would have limited the ability of consumers to seek out other retailer options. The coalition went after the bill and prevented its passing.

The past 30 years have shown us that corporations like Alcon, will continue to use the government as a means of preventing competition that could help consumers by offering them better and cheaper options. Congress should begin to cut federal regulation that hurts consumers’ ability to choose which products would be helpful to them. It should take measures to prevent intentional disruptive lawsuits from gaining traction and work towards placing the power back in the hands of the consumer.

Jack Rowing is a politics major at the Catholic University of America and an assistant editor at RealClearHealth.

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