Protectionist bill an eyesore, denying a cheaper option for glasses, contacts

House Bill 191, the Optometrist Protection Act of 2018, packs a double-barreled punch: It’s bad health policy and bad economic policy.

If this protectionist bill becomes law, Kentuckians will be deprived of renewing prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses online for one reason and one reason only: Optometrists give lawmakers a lot of money for their campaigns.

Were lawmakers genuinely interested in protecting consumers — rather than protecting the incomes of optometrists who help fill their campaign coffers — they could enact protections for those who want to save money and time by renewing prescriptions for glasses and contacts online.

Instead, they’re essentially eliminating this cheaper option — even as Kentucky prepares to end the vision-care benefit for 400,000-plus working poor adults who are part of the Medicaid expansion. Under the Bevin administration’s Medicaid revamp, low-income adults will have to earn eye care and dental care by earning credits through participating in certain activities or successfully negotiating the tangle of red tape that is being imposed on Medicaid by the Bevin administration.

Optometrists argue that an annual in-person exam is the best way to care for eye patients. But there’s no medical evidence that most people need to be seen in person every year. And the companies that are providing the online prescriptions have safeguards in place to be sure that patients who need an in-person exam or consultation are referred to one. A patient who wants to renew a prescription can take an online vision test. An optometrist or ophthalmologist would then review the results of the test plus other information before renewing a prescription or making other recommendations.

If lawmakers are dissatisfied with these safeguards, then beef them up, but don’t deny Kentuckians access to cheaper glasses and contacts.

It’s significant that the Kentucky Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons — made up of ophthalmologists who are medical school graduates specializing in eye care and surgery — oppose HB 191. Their views should carry a lot of weight.

But, as Deborah Yetter reports in Courier Journal, the optometrists’ political action committee has made $503,862 in political contributions since late 2014 while the ophthalmologists PAC gave just $26,000. Nobody needs glasses to see what’s going on here.

For years, Kentuckians have heard about — and seen — the promise of telehealth, especially in rural areas. HB 191 would close an important telehealth option.

HB 191 was approved by the House 90-7. (Lexington can be proud that both Reps. Robert Benvenuti, a Republican, and Susan Westrom, a Democrat, voted no.)

The bill has already cleared a Senate committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate, where members should heed warnings from their physician colleague Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican from Winchester, who says lawmaker should be advancing telehealth, not stamping out promising online access to care.