How readily can patients get access to their prescription? That may seem like a question with a simple and obvious answer, but in the late ’70s, that question was front and center for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). With the growth of retail optical chains, the continuing strength of optometry and the growing number of ophthalmology offices dispensing, consumer advocates felt that patients needed regulations to ensure they got their prescription””and that the exam and purchase of eyewear were separated.

The concern then was that consumers were being restricted from getting their Rx by eye doctors who wanted to sell the patient glasses after the exam. As you might expect, the debate became pretty lively. It took a few years until the FTC released Federal Regulation Title 16, Chapter I, Subchapter D, Part 456, Ophthalmic Practice Rules””the eyeglass prescription release rule.

The essence of the rule is to eliminate what the FTC described as unfair practices and separate the eye exam from the dispensing function. The patient must be given a copy of their Rx immediately at the end of the eye exam. A doctor cannot condition the availability of an eye exam on the purchase of eyeglasses, and a doctor’s office cannot charge for releasing the Rx. Doctors also may not place a statement on the Rx disclaiming responsibility for eyewear made somewhere else or have a patient sign a waiver of this nature.

While the FTC has revisited this rule occasionally, nothing much has changed on the eyeglass side of the rule (there’s a contact lens side, too). Over the last few months however, the FTC opened up comments on the rule and things this time may be quite different. New York State Sen. Charles Schumer has been very vocal about this topic. On September 27, Schumer spoke at a LensCrafters location in midtown Manhattan, stating: “Eyeglasses are a necessity for millions of Americans, yet sky-high prices are making them unaffordable. We need more oversight when it comes to the cost of eyeglasses and one way to do that is to require patients get their full prescriptions so they can shop around in stores and online for the best deal.” He wants to see the expiration date on prescriptions eliminated, too.

Why is the Rx release rule such a contentious issue? One influential OD once explained to me that, “He who controls the prescription controls the patient.” With people like Schumer stepping into this opening of the eyeglass Rx release rule, the debate is likely to ramp up.


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