WASHINGTON, D.C.—About two dozen speakers, many bringing data, anecdotal evidence and/or alternate ideas, expressed a wide range of views on the contact lens prescription and dispensing process, as well as proposed changes to the current Contact Lens Rule, at a public hearing Wednesday at the Federal Trade Commission. The daylong public workshop was called by the FTC as a way to gather input and to review the state of the contact lens marketplace. The agency is in the midst of considering making significant changes to the Contact Lens Rule, as VMAIL reported earlier this year, as the agency is required to do by statute.

The hearing was held at the FTC’s Constitution Center building and included several panel sessions where speakers were permitted to make an opening statement and then answered questions from FTC staff members.

The FTC, in providing a framework for the discussion, noted that it is seeking improved compliance with the Contact Lens Rule’s automatic prescription release requirement “as well as a need to create a mechanism for monitoring and enforcing the rule.” To accomplish this, the agency said it has proposed to amend the rule to require that prescribers obtain a signed acknowledgment form from patients confirming they had received their prescription. Prescribers would have to maintain these acknowledgement forms.

About 41 million Americans wear contact lenses, according to the panelists.

The FTC noted that it also will accept written comments on its proposal to amend the Contact Lens Rule. The submission deadline is April 6, and comments can be submitted online at: https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/contactlensworkshop.

At the conclusion of the presentations, FTC asked speakers for suggestions on how the agency should proceed with its next steps. Dr. David A. Cockrell, OD, Diplomate American Board of Optometry and a past president of the American Optometric Association, said he hopes that “whatever action the FTC takes that [it] would keep uppermost in its mind that patient health care is also part of your charge. It is not just commerce, and [do] not take an action that might in any way jeopardize the patient health [or] an action that is going to increase the burden on small business.”

Responding to the same question, Linda Sherry, director, national priorities, for Consumer Action, said the consumer group believes “we do need to be able to give people the ability to easily renew their [CL] prescription online and also to get a copy of it online from some sort of portal or from the doctor's office themselves.”

The issue of asking patients to sign an acknowledgement form noting that they had received a copy of their CL prescription and prescription verification were among the most debated issues at the hearing.

Asked about the acknowledgement forms, Dr. Cockrell noted that he believes this would create “a very significant burden” on ODs and their office staff. “I looked at the numbers before I came,” he said. “In 2017, we prescribed for over 6,800 individual contact lens patients. When I think about the process of asking 6,800 people to sign a piece of paper and length of time it will take to explain [the form] and then take the time to scan that document, it is unfortunately more than a minute. It really is. That conversation is two to three minutes for the staff.”

Sherry said she didn’t think this would be an overly difficult process. “Unlike other medical professionals and industries, optometrists are allowed to sell these very products that they prescribe,” she said. “And many are also retailers of the contact lenses. This is a conflict. Maybe consumers don't realize this, but [the acknowledgement] it is protecting them.” She added, “I feel that our polling has showed that despite this right to get this copy of this prescription consumers are finding it difficult to get a copy.”

Earlier in the hearing, Luxottica N.A. senior director of contact lenses Mitch Wessels, said the company “in general” likes the current version of the Contact Lens Rule. “We like the rule the way it is,” he said. “If you start talking about [in a blue sky environment] things like removing the brand from the prescription, it is not impossible to do, but it is a huge change within the industry and it would change the relationship between the doctor and the patient. You would need to have a mechanism on the retail side.”

Panelist John Graham, chief executive of 1-800 Contacts, noted that one of the most significant changes in the CL marketplace over the past 10 years is the growth of the internet and online CL options. “At this point, everybody is on the internet… Manufacturers, prescribers, vision plans, everyone is on the internet.” He also noted that the company understands the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. “I think that the doctor-patient relationship is important, but I also think that [this] can be done in lots of different ways, with different prescribers and different methodologies. I think anything that expands access is a good thing if it is done in a smart way.”

Steve Kodey, senior director of industry research services at The Vision Council, noted that the council’s data indicates that there were about 34 million contact lens exams in 2016, representing a 3.1 percent increase over the prior year. This means, he said that about 82 percent of the people who wear contacts got an exam during the year.