The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live. From grocery shopping to attending school or a medical appointment, we now regularly connect in ways that just months ago were rarely imagined. We have also learned that there are some areas where we need more help because we couldn’t get access to vital care and services. Many of these alterations to our daily lives are here to stay — we must reform our laws and regulations to fit new realities. One area of the law where the need for change is crystal clear is vision care, and the way Americans have traditionally purchased contact lenses.
More than 45 million Americans wear contact lenses and since the pandemic began, consumers across the country and right here in Oregon have struggled to access vision care. On March 17, the CDC issued guidance recommending that all routine medical care be delayed, including eye care, as America sheltered in place to flatten the curve. As optometrist offices temporarily shut down across the state, patients could not get copies of their most recent prescription needed to purchase contact lenses.
The current system of vision care in this country was originally designed to give contact lens consumers just one default option: buying their lenses from their retail optometrist. While other purchasing choices have gradually developed in the marketplace, laws, and regulations at all levels of government have unnecessarily slowed the process. Furthermore, there is no way for an optometrist to temporarily extend a patient’s vision prescription if their offices aren’t open and their staffers aren’t answering the phone to assist patients. This situation has not only kept many patients from receiving convenient and lower-cost care, it also has prevented taxpayers from realizing savings in programs such as government employee health insurance. During this pandemic, taxpayers and consumers here in Oregon and nationally are literally paying the price for state policies that block ocular telemedicine.
When patients can’t get access to new lenses, they tend to wear them longer than medically recommended, which could lead to contact lens-related eye infections. Luckily, there are some easy and quick legislative solutions that Congress could adopt to increase opportunities for Oregon residents to access vision care and contact lenses. For example, there is legislative language circulating in the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee that would extend prescription expiration dates temporarily so consumers can buy contacts from providers who are open. Since most optometrists closed their doors and the CDC is still discouraging routine medical visits during this time, it is imperative that patients be allowed to use existing contact lens prescriptions that have expired within the past 12 months to order needed contacts. This one simple fix will provide peace of mind and healthier vision for so many Americans.
The National Taxpayers Union and Consumer Action are very different in ideology and practice, but we have both been working together for years to advance better access to affordable vision care. We represent millions of Americans (including many in Oregon) who want choice, competition, and convenience when it comes to buying contact lenses. We urge Congressman Walden, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to act on ensuring this one basic need is met. Let’s face it, right now anything public officials can do to make life easier is greatly appreciated.