Consumers have a right to their prescriptions

Federal, state laws require eye care professionals to give before being asked

May 01, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Years after laws were enacted to ensure consumers can shop where they want for contact lenses and eyeglasses, some patients still meet resistance getting copies of their vision prescriptions.

"I still get plenty of people complaining that they're having trouble getting them from their eye doctors," said Ira Mitchell. The Minnesota-based blogger offers advice about purchasing glasses online at

The Federal Trade Commission enforces the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, passed in 2003, as well as the Contact Lens Rule and the Eyeglass Rule. Under these provisions, your eye-care provider must give you a copy of your prescriptions whether you request them or not.

But not everyone knows when to expect their prescription. For eyeglasses, they should be given to a patient at the end of the eye exam. With contact lenses, it happens after a fitting.

Providers must also abide by part of Maryland's contact lens law that states the prescription is valid for two years after the examination.

"The whole idea was to allow the consumer choice in the purchasing of their lenses and their eyeglasses," said Ellen Kuhn, an assistant attorney general. "You can't be forced to purchase contact lenses from the eye care professional who did your exam."

Kuhn is the director of Maryland's Health Education and Advocacy Unit, part of the attorney general's office that helps consumers resolve issues with health insurance or billing for medical services or equipment.

In 2009, 15 people contacted the unit for help resolving contact lens and eyeglass issues, she said — a small fraction of the number of complaints the unit receives overall, but more than double the number received past two years.

Both federal and state laws say that the fitting for contact lenses must be complete for consumers to take their prescriptions. Some doctors might require a period of time to test trial pairs and follow-up visits to ensure the lens sits properly. But if providers are prepared to sell contacts to their patient, they are required to provide the prescription, according to the FTC.

Keeping a copy of your prescription allows you to get replacement glasses or contacts whenever you need them, from either a brick-and-mortar optical or an online vendor.

Ordering contacts online from sites such as or is pretty straightforward, said Mitchell, the blogger, who also runs "I think it's a lot more foolproof."

Mitchell, a software consultant, has been blogging about purchasing glasses online since 2006, when he discovered how much he could save.

Unlike contact lens prescriptions, eyeglasses require a measurement called "pupillary distance" — the distance between your pupils — that is not often found on prescriptions. Opticians usually take this measurement, but only Massachusetts and a few other states require it to be included on prescriptions, according to a spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association. New Jersey requires anyone filling the prescription to give that information to patients.

"Eye doctors are reading it [the law] as if it is not required to give it to their client," Mitchell said. "That's a key to keeping people in the office, essentially."

Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a professor at Case Western Reserve University, said he wasn't sure why pupillary distance isn't normally included on prescriptions.

"Historically, we've never done that," he said. "We're now seeing the advent of a different time. People want to do these things on their own. They want to do them online and want to do them as inexpensively as possible."

Mitchell's sites and others post different techniques for measuring pupillary distance yourself, including drawing a dot over your pupils on your current glasses with a non-permanent marker.

But contact lens wearers need to have regular checkups, Steinemann, the ophthalmologist said. "There has to be a continued involvement of an eye-care professional," he said. Not only do lenses have to fit properly but patients can develop bad habits over time.

The American Optometric Association encourages patients to be familiar with an online supplier's policies for returns or problems with the glasses.

Even those who had perfect vision through adulthood need to start having regular eye exams at about age 40 to check for diseases such as glaucoma, Steinemann said. But he had another cost-saving tip for older adults who need reading glasses: drugstore varieties work just fine.

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