Contact lens prices need attention

As chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, it is one of my jobs — along with Republican ranking member Sen. Mike Lee of Utah — to hold hearings focused on the impact corporate mergers and pricing policies have on consumers.

Our hearings have covered many industries, from airlines to communications to drug companies. We have often then made recommendations about mergers and pricing issues to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. A recent hearing we held on contact lens prices generated a lot of interest, including the Aug. 7 commentary "Regarding contact lens costs: Don't take chances with your vision."

First, I want to make clear that ensuring consumer health and safety is my first concern; this is not at all inconsistent with ensuring that consumers have the ability to shop for the best price. All lenses require a prescription from a doctor, no matter where you purchase them. In fact, when prices are too high, cost-conscious consumers may wear their contacts for longer than they should, which can lead to serious health consequences.

Second, in the past year there has been a major change in contact lens pricing, with manufacturers requiring their contacts to be sold at or above a minimum price. This prevents retailers from providing discounts. The requirement raises understandable concerns that consumers may end up paying more for their contact lenses, although the industry argues that it will bring prices down. There have been consumer issues with contact lenses in the past, and that's why Congress passed legislation giving patients the right to a copy of their prescription and the ability to fill that prescription at the retailer of their choice.

Third, Sen. Lee and I concluded the hearing with the clear direction that we would check in a reasonable time to see whether prices had increased, decreased or stayed the same.

With more than 35 million Americans using contact lenses and the cost often as much as hundreds of dollars each year, this is a substantial consumer purchase. And when three of the four major manufacturers that control 90 percent of the market change to a vastly different pricing policy, it is the role of the Antitrust Subcommittee to question this policy on behalf of the public.