Eyes on the Prize

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.