FTC warns retailer, stresses industry-wide adherence to rule

January 15, 2006

Ophthalmologists and others who prescribe contact lenses are complying with the new law that requires prescribers to give patients a copy of their prescription so they may shop around for their contact lenses.

Ophthalmologists and others who prescribe contact lenses are complying with the new law that requires prescribers to give patients a copy of their prescription so they may shop around for their contact lenses.

That's the finding of Federal Trade Commission (FTC)-sponsored test shoppers who went undercover in Pennsylvania and New York to determine if patients were being given their prescriptions-whether or not they asked for them-as required by the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, which took effect in February 2004.

The online retailer replied that its fax service can accept more than 100 faxes simultaneously, and that the lines have been accessible during business hours 99.96% of the time. Shipments were halted during four 20-minute interruptions in fax service, R. Joe Zeidner, 1-800 CONTACTS' general counsel, responded to the FTC. He said the company initiates about two million prescription verification requests every year, and takes its verification requirements seriously.

The law, which was heavily advocated by 1-800 CONTACTS Chief Executive Officer Jonathon Coon, orders prescribers to give patients their contact lens prescriptions at the conclusion of the fitting process. Consumers may then take their prescriptions and buy their contact lenses anywhere. The seller is responsible for obtaining verification from the prescriber that every prescription is valid.

The rule is not generally a hardship for most ophthalmologists, because they usually gave patients their prescriptions after their exam, said Kathy McNelis, COA, NCLC, ABOC, secretary of the American Association of Dispensing Ophthalmologists.

The harder part is verifying prescriptions within the time frame, said McNelis, an optician and contact lens technician who fits lenses at Scheie Eye Institute, Philadelphia, and at Kids Eyes, the office of Martin Wilson, MD, Paoli, PA.

"We get 50 of them (verification requests) every Friday. You can't possibly verify them (in time). There's no way you can actually reply to them," she said. As a result, contact lens sellers may fill invalid prescriptions. "It's a gigantic concern," McNelis said.

"It's a gross injustice. Think about a big medical office, with charts on another floor," she said. "You just don't have the personnel to run and get the charts. It's totally unacceptable."

Although the law was changed ostensibly to help consumers by promoting competition in the contact lens marketplace, patients are hurting their vision if they try to fill an old prescription or fail to return for follow-up eye exams, McNelis said. She cited one doctor whose patient wrongly filled a 5- or 6-year-old (and therefore invalid) prescription through another vendor, then finally returned with red eyes-and a corneal ulcer.

In light of complaints about the communication process of verifying prescriptions, the FTC amended its bulletin, "Complying with the Contact Lens Rule" in October 2005 to distinguish the prescribers' and sellers' responsibilities (see http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/contactfaq.htm).