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Eye on contact prices

Most wearers buy lenses from their doctors, but chain retailers and Internet sources can be cheaper. Some shopping tips for the wary.

August 05, 2007|Gregory Karp | Morning Call

It has been more than three years since American consumers received the right to get cheaper contact lenses, but word has been slow to spread.

Since 2004, federal law has dictated that your eye doctor must automatically give you your prescription after he or she fits you for contact lenses. Doctors can't charge for it or make you sign a waiver.

The point of the law, called the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, is to break the domination of eye-care practitioners selling lenses. A similar rule for eyeglasses has existed since 1978. The law reduces the conflict of interest when a professional who is supposed to be giving you independent advice is potentially also steering you to products on which he or she can make a substantial profit.

A fair amount of money is at stake. Selling contact lenses is a $2.4-billion industry, according to the Vision Council of America.

About 46 million adult Americans wear contact lenses, or about 1 of every 5 adults, according to a recent Vision Council study. In recent years more adults have turned to contact lenses -- even if they have had bad experiences previously -- because of new lenses that help reduce dry eyes and other complications. Today the majority of lenses sold are disposable, meaning you throw them away and use a new pair after a prescribed number of days or weeks.

And though the market for contact lenses was officially flung open to increased competition by the 2004 law, most lens wearers continue to buy contacts from their doctor, whose prices typically are higher.

Just 31% of lens prescriptions were filled at chain retailers, optical stores or mail order and Internet suppliers, according to a Federal Trade Commission study.

The 2005 study found that eye doctors and opticians had the highest prices, with wholesale clubs featuring the lowest prices. Contact lenses sold online are on average $15 cheaper for a six-month supply than those sold offline, the FTC report found.

So the best buying tip is this: Obtain advice from your doctor about the different types of lenses, get a trial pair with a fitting check-up and perhaps even buy the first set from the doctor. But afterward, buy lenses -- especially disposables -- elsewhere, such as from a warehouse club, by mail order or on the Internet.

Here are a few do's and don'ts:

* Do relax. Contact lenses are standard. You will receive the same box of lenses regardless of where you purchase them, assuming you buy the same brand with the correct prescription.

If your doctor already fitted you for lenses, there's no advantage to paying more by continuing to purchase lenses from the office.

* Don't blow off exams. A potential concern is that buying lenses elsewhere might encourage you to avoid your eye doctor and skip regular check-ups. "It's important to keep up with eye care when wearing contact lenses because of problems that could develop," said Gregory Good, professor of clinical optometry at Ohio State University.

From a money standpoint, a severe eye problem that develops and worsens because of skipped checkups could cost far more than what you save on lenses and eye exams.

"If you try to save on the product side, don't skimp on the exam side," said Kerry Beebe, chairman of the American Optometric Assn. Clinical Care Committee.

* Do compare prices. Shop by price for replacement lenses at such places as Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Optical, as well as online sites such as 1800Contacts and CLE Contact Lenses. Online retailers reduce hassle because lenses are shipped to your door. Be sure to calculate shipping costs when comparison shopping.

If you're wary, try out a merchant by buying a limited supply of disposables. Once you're comfortable with the process, you can often save money by buying in bulk, which might also qualify for free shipping from online retailers.

* Don't experiment on your own. Switch lenses using a doctor's guidance. "There is a lot of art that goes into fitting contact lenses and getting the right lens," Good said. Besides, your doctor probably has trial lenses, so you may be able to experiment with different lenses free.

* Do consider cost in choosing lens types. Cost should enter the discussion with your doctor about which lenses are right for you. With disposable lenses, the more often you replace them, the greater your lens expense per year. For example, lenses meant to be replaced every several weeks might cost about $100 a year, and daily disposables could cost more than $500 a year.

If you are uncomfortable buying lenses online or at a warehouse club as opposed to your doctor, don't sweat it too much. According to the FTC study, you're probably paying about $50 more annually for lenses. That may not be worth the hassle of changing what you are currently doing. For those comfortable making the switch, it's an easy $50-a-year savings.

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Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for the Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa.

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