Higher Prices for Contact Lenses?
Some Rules Restricting 'Doctor-Only' Sales Set to Change Nov. 1
Sept. 15, 2006 -- A dispute between contact lens manufacturers, sellers, and
eye care professionals could soon have 38 million consumers paying more for
The fight involves little-publicized distribution agreements that restrict
sales of certain lens brands to doctor or optometrist offices.
The limited distribution agreements come in several forms, but essentially
allow eye care professionals to prescribe lenses only such professionals sell.
That can force a patient to pay inflated prices for lenses they can't buy
A 2003 law and a court settlement forced major lens manufacturers to sell
their lenses to the mass market, opening up huge sales to stores like Wal-Mart
and Costco, as well as to online and telephone retailers.
But terms of that settlement expire Nov. 1, potentially clearing the way for
more manufacturers to limit sales to doctors' offices.
That could allow more doctors to prescribe more lenses only they can sell.
Lens retailers call that anti-competitive.
But doctors say selling lenses through retailers allows patients to bypass
regular checkups -- and for retailers to make a sale without even verifying the
Manufacturers say the vast majority of their lenses are now sold on the mass
It remains unclear if major manufacturers will increase the use of
restrictive sales agreements after Nov. 1.
Jonathan C. Coon, CEO of 1-800 Contacts, Inc., says allowing optometrists
and other eye care professionals exclusive rights to sell the lenses they
prescribe is an inherent conflict of interest and goes against the intent of
the 2003 law.
That law required doctors to hand out paper prescriptions, presumably so
patients could shop around for the best price.
"The purpose of the law is to allow patients to choose; the purpose of
the [limited distribution] practice is to deny them that choice," Coon told
a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Capitol Hill Friday.
Manufacturers have promoted the practice to doctors as a way to increase
physician revenue and to ensure that patients come back when they need a new
supply of lenses.
Meg Graham, spokeswoman for Bausch & Lomb, Inc., would not divulge the
percentage of that company's contact sales through "doctor-only"
agreements, calling the information proprietary.
"At this point, we would expect to continue our current practices,"
she says of the company's future plans regarding doctor-only sales.
Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Inc., the nation's largest contact lens
maker, said through a spokesman, "The company prefers not to make any
comment" concerning sales.
Lens manufacturer CIBA Vision said in a statement that its lenses are
"available through alternative channels of distribution, including from eye
care professionals and on-line retailers." The company did not indicate
whether it plans to alter sales strategies.
Doctors say they do not abuse the agreements.