Congress lobbied in contact lens rift

WASHINGTON — In the push for cheaper contact lenses, Congress is being asked to make eye prescriptions available to every American who visits the optometrist — an advantage Texans have had since 1998.

But instead of being hailed as a friend to consumers, Texas has been singled out as anti-competitive in testimony before Congress, particularly by a national contact lens distributor that has clashed with state optometrists in the past.

The company, 1-800 Contacts, criticized Texas rules requiring doctors to verify contact prescriptions before a mail-order business can ship lenses.

“We’ve had over 50,000 consumers denied their right to purchase from us in the past year for no other reason — and this is over half our orders in the state of Texas — for no other reason that their eye doctor refused to respond to a written prescription request that we sent by fax,” Jonathan Coon, chief executive of the company, told the House commerce and trade subcommittee Tuesday.

Eye doctors, who typically sell contacts from their offices, have a financial stake in denying the sales, Coon said.

Texas optometrists and state regulators dispute the claim, blaming 1-800 Contacts for filing hundreds of unfounded complaints against eye doctors — a tactic no other national company pursues, said Dr. Joe DeLoach, an optometrist and chairman of the regulatory Texas Optometry Board.

“I do not believe in my wildest imaginings that doctors are ignoring requests from dispensers. If they are, why do we not have complaints from any other contact lens dispenser?” DeLoach said.

After failing in recent attempts to make changes through the Texas Legislature, the lens company is asking Congress to ban the Texas model for verifying prescriptions. In its place, Coon advocated a time limit for doctors to stop a sale based on specific criteria, such as an expired prescription. If the doctor does not respond, the prescription would be presumed valid and the sale completed.

The Utah-based company, which says it is the nation’s largest purveyor of contact lenses, made headlines in 2001 by offering chauffeur service and private jets to customers willing to testify before a Texas Senate hearing. The hearing was canceled, and the company blamed its overzealous marketing department.

The U.S. House bill, HR 2221, does not specify verification procedures, but the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., appeared to be leaning toward Coons’ suggestion.

Today’s disposable contact lenses, worn by 36 million Americans, offer a lucrative market for large companies such as Wal-Mart and for mail-order vendors who sell by phone or on the Internet.

Texas and 34 other states give consumers access to their contact lens prescriptions so they can shop for the best deals, the Federal Trade Commission says. The competition has lowered prices in Texas while improving service from optometrists, many of whom have begun shipping contacts by mail, said Ami Gadhia, assistant legislative counsel with Consumers Union.

“Our experience in Texas indicates that the (House bill) will most likely result in lower prices and better service for consumers, and Consumers Union urges its passage,” Gadhia told the subcommittee.

Two additional witnesses, both from Austin, reinforced claims of anti-competitive behavior in Texas.

Maria Martinez, with Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free-market and conservative advocacy group, said she recently switched doctors after having trouble obtaining her contact lens prescription. Now that she’s shopping on the Internet for a replacement pair, Martinez expects to save about $100.

Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, said her organization contacted about 100 people who filed contact lens complaints with the Texas Optometry Board.

“None said their complaints was addressed. A few said they were contacted by mail for more information,” Venable said.

The seven-employee agency, which has one investigator to regulate the state’s optometrists, receives an average of 130 consumer complaints a year, with about 15 percent referring to contract lens prescriptions, said Chris Kloeris, executive director. In addition, complaints from 1-800 Contacts prompted the board to send 1,831 letters to consumers seeking additional information.

“From those requests, we’ve opened 95 cases (where) it looks like there might be evidence the law’s been violated,” Kloeris said.

DeLoach, chairman of the board, said most complaints were found to be lacking because the consumer did not have a valid, or unexpired, prescription.

“We have found a handful of situations where doctors truly, either by intent or ignorance, did not comply with either the spirit or intent of the law,” DeLoach said. “Those doctors have been called before the board. I don’t know the exact number, but I would say it’s less than 10 (doctors).”

clindell@statesman.com, (202) 887-8329

Texas law vs. proposed U.S. law

Under Texas law

* Doctors must release contact lens prescriptions when requested by a patient.

* Most eye prescriptions expire after one year.

* Doctors are required to give a prescription only once.

* Doctors must verify that prescriptions are valid before mail-order contact lenses can be shipped.

* Texas Optometry Board enforces state law.

Under the proposed U.S. law

* Doctors must give contact lens prescriptions to all patients, whether they are requested or not.

* Most eye prescriptions expire after one year at the earliest.

* Doctors must respond to all requests for prescription verification.

* Doctors may not charge for follow-up visits as a condition for releasing prescriptions.

* Federal Trade Commission enforces the law.

To file a complaint

Patients denied access to their valid contact lens prescription can contact the Texas Optometry Board at (512) 305-8500 or by e-mailing Chris.Kloeris@mail.capnet.state.tx.us. Include your name and mailing address.

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