Here's Why You're Paying More for Your Contact Lenses

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By Krystal Steinmetz

Did your last box of contact lenses seem unusually expensive? Don't bother shopping around for a better price, because you probably won't find it.

Johnson & Johnson, Alcon, Bausch & Lomb and Cooper Vision -- which together account for 97 percent of all contact lenses sold in the United States -- have set price minimums for many contacts, so you're unlikely to find them any cheaper, no matter how hard you look.

"The manufacturers say the policies are intended to simplify the market and shift conversations between patients and optometrists away from the topic of pricing and toward the clinical benefits of their contact lenses," The New York Times said.

Companies like Costco and 1-800-Contacts, which previously sold lenses at deep discounts to consumers, say the contact lens manufacturers' policies amount to illegal price-fixing that limits competition and costs consumers big bucks, the Times noted.

Several states are considering legislation that would prohibit contact lens manufacturers from setting retail price minimums. Consumer class action lawsuits have also been filed against contact lens manufacturers.

Costco Suing J&J

Costco is suing industry giant Johnson & Johnson for alleged antitrust violations. Richard Chavez, a senior vice president at Costco, told KGW that the warehouse retail chain has been forced to increase its contact lens prices by 26 percent. He said the 39 million American consumers who wear contact lenses "cannot go to any retailer of any size and try to buy their contact lenses at a lower price, which we used to do every day for many, many years."

Although lens manufacturers claim the price policies are merely simplifying the market, opponents claim they're intended to win approval from optometrists who decide which contact brand their patients will use. The Times said: "Unlike medical doctors who prescribe a drug and then send their patients to a pharmacy to fill it, many optometrists make money on both the eye exam and the glasses and contact lenses they sell in-house. But ever since a 2003 law required optometrists to give patients their contact lens prescriptions free of charge, many of those sales have moved to online sellers and discounters like Costco, who often charge less."

So if all retailers are charging the same price for contacts, it would be easiest to simply order from your optometrist's office. This has not gone unnoticed by optometrists, the Times noted.

Gary Gerber, an industry consultant who hosts the industry podcast "The Power Hour," said in an episode last fall that the policies were "the coolest thing to happen in contact lenses in the last 20 years." He added, "It allows the doctors to compete and be profitable."

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