FRANKFORT, Ky. — More companies are offering eye exams through a smart phone app, marketing it as a way to save a trip and some money on something as simple as a prescription renewal.
But a bill moving through the Kentucky legislature would regulate the industry for the first time in the state, requiring patients to have real-time interaction with a Kentucky-licensed optometrist and banning prescriptions for people who have not had an in-person eye exam within the past two years.
The Kentucky Optometric Association says the bill is designed to protect people from incorrect prescriptions, which could impair drivers and students trying to learn in classrooms. But the companies that offer these services say it’s an attempt to put them out of business and protect the brick-and-mortar doctors’ offices that make money from exams and sales of contacts and prescription glasses.
The fight is the latest example of ongoing regulatory battles between established business practices and new technologies threating to disrupt traditional services, such as ride sharing service Uber’s conflict with taxi companies. The bill cleared a legislative committee in Kentucky on Thursday, but only after several lawmakers seemed to struggle between promoting e-commerce and imposing safety regulations.
The mobile eye exams use the camera on a smartphone to take pictures of the eye. The patient then stands at least 10 feet away while reading an eye chart. The information is then sent to a doctor who reviews it and then writes a prescription.
“It is unsafe to simply rely on information provided by a consumer,” said Ben Gaddie, past president of the Kentucky Optometric Association who testified against the bill Thursday. “There are no standards or required safeguards for citizens of Kentucky as they receive prescriptions through these applications.”
Companies like Opternative, Simple Contacts, 1-800-Contacts and Warby Parker offer the service. They say the service is designed for people between the ages of 18 and 50 who want to renew a prescription, not get a first-time prescription. Alex Barger, director of clinical services for Simple Contacts, said more than 500,000 people have saved a trip to the eye doctor by using their service.
“The biggest risk factor with wearing contact lenses is… wearing them for too long,” Barger said. “The biggest reason that people wear their contact lenses for too long is because they can’t make time to go to optometrists’ office.”
The companies label their product as telemedicine, something Kentucky officials have been investing in given a shortage of doctors in the state’s poor, rural areas.
“This is a good, cost effective, accurate technology that is going to be banned with the passage of this bill,” Pete Horkan, head of U.S. government affairs for Opternative, told lawmakers Thursday. “It’s increasing so much red tape … that it will shut down all of the companies that are represented here right now.”
Republican state Rep. Jim Gooch, who sponsored the bill, said the legislation is not anti-telemedicine but simply responding to technological advancements.
“We try to make sure there are proper regulations out there, and that’s somehow classified as red tape. That bothers me,” he said.
Republican state Rep. Robert Benvenuti said the bill needs some “fine tuning,” but voted to pass it out of committee and onto the floor of the House of Representatives.
“We want to make sure that for Kentuckians that choose to use telehealth that we’re not making that more restrictive,” he said.