Retailers fighting Universal Pricing Policy on contact lenses

ORLANDO, Fla. – More than 34 million people in the United States wear contact lenses, and they know, contacts aren't cheap.

If you've noticed you're paying more for popular brands in recent years, you're not alone.

[WEB EXTRA: Check if your brand is affected | Costco lawsuit | Email from 1-800 contacts to customers]

Krystal Gilliard is one of those people. For as long as she can remember, she's had trouble with her vision.

"Ever since I was 4, I had some big, old, thick glasses on my face," said Gilliard.

She said contacts are a lifeline for her, especially because her vision is so poor.

"I can barely text. It's got to be like this in order for me to see the phone," she said, holding her hands right in front of her face.

But the problem is, she said, contact prices are going up. Each of her eyes has a different prescription, which makes the cost go up.

"Two different boxes, two different prices," said Gilliard. "It's like ordering for two people almost. For one box, even, it's about $90. That's just that one box for the astigmatism. The one without can range from $30-$60, and that's just a one-month supply."

It's all because of what's called the Universal Pricing Policy, or UPP. The four major contact lens manufacturers, Johnson & Johnson, Bausch & Lomb, Alcon and CooperVision, have set a rule saying retailers can't sell them below a certain price. Those manufacturers make up about 97 percent of the contact lens market.

For example, no one is allowed to sell a 12-pack of Acuvue Oasys with Hydroclear Plus contacts for less than $67.50. If you wear Dailies Total 1, the 30 packs can't sell for below $39 a box.

Discount contact lens suppliers, like 1-800 contacts, said they've had to up their prices significantly because of that.

In an email to customers, the company said: "The price for contact lenses is increasing drastically across the industry - for some of our customers, prices are up 34 percent already."

In a lawsuit Costco filed against Johnson & Johnson, the company said the UPP takes the incentive to shop around away and pushes customers toward buying from their doctors.

But Dr. Ben Larson of Advanced EyeCare in Sanford said he has a different take.

"What I like is it levels the playing field," said Larson. "So if you're a mass retailer or a small guy like me, the prices are pretty much the same."

Larson said the UPP makes things safer and more convenient for patients by encouraging them to buy in bulk, with built-in rebates.

"They've incorporated in an annual supply discount, which is good for the patient," said Larson. "If they have extra contacts, they won't over-wear them, which can lead to complications. If you're not changing your contacts like we prescribe, it can impair your vision permanently."

But Gilliard said in some cases you have to wait months to get that rebate money back, and sometimes you just can't afford to pay all that money up front.

"If you were to order a year worth of contacts, that's a lot of money to put down all at once," said Gilliard. "If you don't have it, it's like you just go on a monthly basis, which ends up being more expensive for you."

Larson said that's true, because of what's called tier pricing. He said the annual supply is the best deal, and either way, all patients are free to shop around for deals. He said the one thing he doesn't want is for patients to feel disloyal if they do purchase elsewhere.

"I don't want my patients to feel that way," said Larson. "If there's a problem, they'll be less likely to come in, and we want our patients to be happy in their contacts, so we want them to know it's OK to come in."

He said ordering right from your doctor is the best way to avoid those problems altogether.

"When patients buy from the same place that they get fit, and then the order is in right there. Very rarely is there a mishap or error," said Larson.

There are lawsuits and legislation efforts popping up around the country right now to stop the UPP. Utah became the first state to ban the policy, but that's on hold after lawsuits against the state from the manufacturers.

In Florida, the House and Senate had bills up for a vote this session, but in both cases, the bills died. 

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