In many states, walking into a grocery store and filling a contact lens prescription or buying a pair of glasses would seem utterly unremarkable. For the busy parent or the senior citizen, the convenience and affordability of optical clinics located within larger retail stores can mean the difference between seeing clearly and not seeing right at all.
Despite the obvious advantages of allowing grocery stores and other chain retailers to provide optical services, Oklahoma continues to stubbornly resist such common-sense arrangements. Antiquated state laws prohibit retail stores in the Sooner State from offering eye services to customers, which means residents are needlessly putting up with higher prices and more hassle for something as basic as eye care. Luckily, on Nov. 6 Oklahoma voters have a rare opportunity to overturn these restrictions — an opportunity that they should not pass up.
Oklahoma law requires a physical wall between optometry offices and retail outlets. It also forbids stores from selling prescription eyewear unless it constitutes a majority of their sales. These rules make it impossible for many pharmacies or retailers like Costco, Target and Walmart to operate eye clinics within their stores. Forty-seven states allow retailers to sell eyewear and 34 allow optometrist clinics to be located inside a retail store, making Oklahoma an extreme outlier in the modern health marketplace.
Voters will have the opportunity to weigh in via State Question 793. The main opponents of reforming Oklahoma’s woefully out-of-date eye-care laws are, perhaps unsurprisingly, optometrists operating in the state. These incumbent providers have argued that allowing retail stores to provide vision services will erode the quality of eye care, even going to so far as to accuse large retailers of prioritizing corporate profits over patient health.
The problem with these arguments is that they lack solid data to back them up. As mentioned, the vast majority of states around the country allow optical centers to operate within retail stores without any issue. There’s no evidence of worse health outcomes or substandard vision care in those states. This dearth of data to support their claim suggests that Oklahoma optometrists’ real concern is not preserving the quality of eye care, but rather protecting their bottom line by preventing competition.
Ultimately, the real losers when it comes to this protectionist legal regime are consumers. Currently, 64 percent of Oklahomans older than 40 suffer from eye issues ranging from general vision impairment to cataracts. While some people can afford expensive eye care, many depend on the lower-cost care provided by vision centers operating in large retail stores and pharmacies. By locking retailers out of the market, Oklahoma is raising the price of eye care for everyone — including its most vulnerable and low-income citizens.
Oklahoma voters have a chance to lead the way in opening up the state’s sclerotic eye-care markets to greater competition. Doing so would be a win-win for economic freedom and consumer choice.
Image by Dragan Grkic