Revamped FTC Eyeglass Rule Empowers Consumers: A Nudge Towards Fairer Marketplace

Doctor putting eyeglasses on a manPhoto by Antoni Shkraba on Pexels.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After wrapping up a thorough review spanning several years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ratified final modifications to its Ophthalmic Practice Rules, colloquially known as the Eyeglass Rule. These changes are part of a bigger picture to foster competition and expand consumer options.

The updated directives are designed to augment adherence to the rule’s long-standing mandate: requiring eye doctors (both ophthalmologists and optometrists) to provide patients with a copy of their prescription at no cost immediately after a refractive eye examination. The modifications now necessitate that in particular situations, a patient’s signature will need to be procured to confirm receipt of their prescription. Moreover, the prescribers are also required to maintain a log of this confirmation for a period of no less than three years.

Samuel Levine, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, added insight into the aims of these updates: “For decades, the FTC’s Eyeglass Rule has been instrumental in promoting competition by ensuring that consumers have the freedom to compare prices. The FTC’s updated rule will bolster adherence and make this market fairer and more competitive.”

Originally introduced in 1978, the FTC’s Eyeglass Rule has been a pivotal force in facilitating consumer choice and fostering competition in the eyeglass market. This is achieved by obligating prescribers to automatically provide patients with a copy of their eyeglass prescription promptly after any eye examination involving a vision test, also known as refraction, irrespective of whether the patient explicitly requests it.

The existing rule expressly prohibits prescribers from forcing patients to purchase eyeglasses before giving them their prescription, attaching a liability waiver on the prescription, demanding patients sign a waiver to receive their prescription, or imposing extra charges for a copy of their prescription. On the same note, they also can’t refuse to conduct an eye exam unless the patient agrees to purchase eyeglasses, contact lenses, or other ophthalmic goods from them.

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Despite the Eyeglass Rule’s long-standing existence, there have been instances where prescribers didn’t comply with the automatic release requirement. The FTC has had to send out warning letters to these prescribers, reminding them of their obligations under the law. Furthermore, surveys have revealed that a considerable number of consumers are not automatically given their prescription after each refractive eye exam.

In an attempt to curb these issues, the FTC proposed updating the rule in December 2022 after receiving over 800 public comments. As part of this process, a public workshop was held in May 2023 to collect more feedback on the proposed changes.

The revisions now mandate that prescribers, after issuing the prescription, get their patients to sign a statement affirming that they received their prescription, and maintain a record of this confirmation for at least three years. These new confirmation requirements, which closely reflect those already in place for contact lens prescriptions, apply exclusively to optometrists and ophthalmologists who sell prescription eyewear.

Further changes to the rule include allowing prescribers, with explicit consent from the patient, to provide a digital copy of the prescription instead of a paper copy. However, if a patient declines the digital copy, the prescriber has to furnish a paper copy. The rule also emphasizes that irrespective of whether the patient consents to a digital copy or opts for a paper one, the prescription must be provided immediately after the examination concludes. Moreover, it clarifies that proof of insurance coverage can be considered payment for the purpose of determining when a prescription must be provided.

Last but not least, the rule now refers to “eye examination” as “refractive eye examination” and underscores the importance for prescribers to make it clear to consumers that there’s a disparity between an eye health examination and a refractive eye examination. After all, the automatic release of prescriptions is only mandated after a refractive eye examination.

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The FTC’s final vote on approving these changes was unanimous at 5-0, with Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issuing a standalone statement. These updates to the Eyeglass Rule constitute a significant leap forward in promoting consumer sovereignty, fostering business competition, and ensuring an overall healthier optical goods market.

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