Smack in the middle of a towering state budget crisis, and as the General Assembly goes into special session to deal with it, it might seem very small of a Connecticut political columnist to devote time and space to a segment of the business community that’s afraid of competition, but here goes anyway.
In a little noticed act of protectionism, the General Assembly quietly passed a bill — an Act Concerning Consumer Protection in Eye Care — whose purpose is “To protect consumers from dubious technology that can compromise well-accepted standards of care and place a patient’s health at risk.”
Who could possibly object to that? After all, isn’t protecting us from fraud and evil-doing one of the government’s major responsibilities? But this isn’t fraud at all. It’s a new technology that, in some cases, would eliminate the middle-man and allow consumers to test their vision, online or with a mobile phone app, and order new contact lenses without an expensive office visit to an optometrist.
The bill would have prohibited the use of information gleaned from an eye test using a “remote refractive device” as the sole basis for a obtaining or refilling a contact lens prescription (refraction is the technology used by computers and mobile devices to test your vision).
A compromise was eventually reached, as the revised bill would only require an in-person consultation and eye examination for the first lens prescription and the first renewal. After that, patients can use the remote device for subsequent renewals. And it no longer specifies expiration dates for contact lens prescriptions.
The question I have is: what prompted this bill in the first place? A rash of undetected eye-disease cases? Thousands of people who ordered contact lenses online and found them ill-fitting or ineffective? Not likely, since Dr. Steven Thornquist of the Connecticut State Medical Society admitted to the legislature’s Public Health Committee that the risk of harm from an incorrect refraction is low.
Indeed, in assessing the issue a couple of months ago, the libertarian-leaning Yankee Institute noted that “so far there have been no reported injuries or complaints due to the technology, only concerns about potential risks.”
But that didn’t stop state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Bozrah, himself an optometrist, from fear-mongering. “Are you willing to risk your vision, your sight, and your health for simple convenience?” Ryan asked rhetorically in an op-ed for CTNewsJunkie. “We shouldn’t let unproven technology put … patients at risk.”
More likely, the legislation was proposed in response to optometrists who were skittish about the proliferation of cheaper alternatives and were pressuring lawmakers to protect their turf. In other words, old fashioned rent-seeking.
Of course, we’ve seen this before. The state’s system of minimum pricing for wine and spirits is perhaps the most outrageous example of special treatment of a sector of Connecticut’s business community. The antipathy shown toward other innovative companies has also been well documented. Conventional taxi drivers don’t want to have to compete with ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. Auto dealers are apoplectic at the idea of allowing the luxury electric car manufacturer Tesla to sell its product directly to the people rather than using a middleman — namely the franchisee auto dealers.
I understand that rent-seeking is hardly unique to Connecticut but it is widely acknowledged that a major source of our profound economic woes is the perception that ours is a state with a poor business climate. That’s the reality.
If you’re trying to shake that reputation and get the state moving again, do you really want to be seen as standing in the way of innovative companies that might want to do business here or establish a major presence in the state? Companies like Total Wine and Opternative, the firm that produces the vision test and corrective lens mobile apps, should be embraced.
That’s not to say anything goes, obviously. And compromises of the sort that eventually happened with Opternative and its ilk are a step forward. In addition, the General Assembly seems disinclined to enact yet another tax on the wealthy. Could it be that an increasing number of lawmakers now “get it” and want to change the perception of hostility toward business that plagues our state? Stay tuned.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.