Eyes on the Prize

On April 27, 2009, in Culture, by peterb

I hate my optometrists. Or should I say, I hate my ex-optometrists.

I’ve worn glasses since I was in fourth grade. I’ve never been able to handle contact lenses, and to me there’s also something refreshing and liberating about having a little mask that I put on when I wake up and take off when I go to sleep. Eyeglasses are, perhaps, my only concession to the world that there is this constant public dance called “fashion” and that I participate in it.

The problem with glasses isn’t in the objects themselves, but that buying them is such an exercise in consumer frustration.

Most vendors of eyeglasses also have an ophthalmologist doctor of optometry on staff. In the old days, before we discovered fire and the wheel, you went to a place that sold eyeglasses, and, if you wanted to, you had the doctor give you an eye exam. If you didn’t want to, you just told the salesman “I like these frames. Give me lenses that match these specifications.”

Now, things aren’t so simple. In what appear to be protectionist laws crafted to interfere with consumers’ ability to buy glasses over the Internet, lens specifications are considered “prescriptions” and they “expire.”

I broke my glasses today. Now, here’s the thing. I love my prescription lenses. They’re perfect. And reading the prescription off of the lenses themselves is a trivial exercise: any monkey can do it with the help of a machine. When I visited my optometrist, I had the following conversation:

Me: “Hi. I’d like the same glasses with the same lenses please.”
Them: “Sure, we’ll set you up for an eye exam.”
M: “I don’t want an eye exam. I want the same lenses.”
T: “That’s against the law, sir! You’ll need an exam.”
M: “I won’t get an exam. Either sell me new glasses with the same lenses, or I’ll take them somewhere else and have them read the script off the lenses.”

A very, very long pause ensued. I had moved from being a customer to being a Difficult Customer.

This “it’s against the law!” line is frustrating, because it is, of course, only against the anticompetitive law that the optometrists lobbied to get passed; in Pennsylvania it’s the Optometry Practice Act. Many other states have similar laws. For a good time, try asking your optometrist for a written copy of your prescription so you can buy your next pair of glasses on the Internet. Their refusing to do that is against the law in some states, but it turns out some people are more willing to consider ignoring regulations when it hurts their bottom line. So it goes.

Our conversation continued:

T: “We can put the old lenses in new frames…”
M: “This is not rocket science. The prescription is fine. I don’t want to change it.”
T: “Look, if you like the old prescription, we can explain that to the doctor and after the exam we can…work something out.”

And here, to misquote William Burroughs, we see the naked lunch at the end of the health care spoon: they’re willing to give me an exam, and then write me the prescription I want regardless of the results, as long as they get a bite of my health care dollars through an exam. At least, that’s how I read the conversation.

M: “OK, thanks,” I said, taking my glasses back. “I guess I’ll call you if I decide to do that.”

Then I drove to several other eyeglass stores. Some of them were perfectly happy to sell me glasses based on the existing lenses, whereas others wanted to make me get a new prescription.

I eventually bought a pair from a friendly local chain at a reasonable price. And I can guarandamntee you that every pair of glasses I buy from now on will either be bought at that location, or on the Internet. And if I get an eye exam, it will be because I want one. Not because a doctor’s organization bribed a state legislator so they’d have a guaranteed income stream so they could buy a Porsche.


6 Responses to “Eyes on the Prize”

  1. Goob says:

    I only just got new glasses (and a new prescription was sorely needed) and it was vaguely hilarious how the machinations played out to try to keep that magic piece of paper out of my hands.

    Or they might just have been incompetent.

  2. Mike says:

    Me, I’ve always been afraid of poking my eyes, first thing in the morning; my dexterity is not the best to begin with — coupled with lack of sleep and I’d be looking at blindness if it wasn’t for the twenty-five years of eyeglasses.

    I’m a bit torn, myself; I’ve fallen into the hey-I’ve-got-insurance trap where I decide to get new lenses after a year, forgetting that whoever runs the insurance company decided that they’ll only pay biennially, but want annual exams. And then my wife’s a vet; there’s all kinds of online discount animal pharmacies that just want that prescription faxed over to them before they’ll dispense animal drugs at steep discounts — it takes business away from the clinic, though, and then they’re reluctant to hand out the prescription without getting some sort of money out of the transaction. It’s a question of survival.

    Then again, the markups that the frames must get locally — when there’s Internet places that’ll dispatch glasses for a pittance — is staggering. Surely there’s a reasonable middle path between supporting local business and getting robbed.

  3. ChrisC says:

    Huh. I’ve never had a problem saying “may I have a prescription so I can buy contacts on the internet?” They always just gave it to me.

    Once my optometrist in Pittsburgh warned me that some web sites sell old contacts which are about to expire (but have not yet expired). Turns out they were right — I ordered a 1-year supply, and the expiry date on the boxes was 6 months into the future… (Still worked ‘tho.)

    AFAIK — most opthamologists don’t sell glasses, they are physicians which do surgery and treat glaucoma. “Doctors” of Optometry figure out your prescription. The people who convince you that thick black frames are “in” this year are salespeople, plain and simple.

  4. peterb says:

    Chris: My impression is that there’s less of a “gouge the customer at all costs” attitude towards contacts, because you don’t get to double-dip on lenses and frames. And as Mike observes, the markup on frames is beyond unreal. It’s all pure profit.

    Thanks for the correction about the types of doctors involved.

  5. Julie says:

    That’s funny. When I lived in Pennsylvania, my doctor always wrote down my prescription for me. Now in CA, they’ll tell me what it is, but they don’t write it on a card and hand it to me as part of their routine.

  6. Dr. Click says:

    That’s bizarre. I get a contact lens exam every year, and an eyeglass prescription thrown in, no problem, in CA.