News Story

Legislators Block Low-Cost Eye Exams in Michigan

State bans automated kiosks

Starting next month, consumers nationwide will be able to take a $30 online eyeglass exam and get a prescription from the convenience of their home – but Michigan residents will be left in the dark. That's because last spring the Michigan Legislature passed – and Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law – Senate Bill 853, which bans automated eye exam and eyeglass kiosks.

Although the company offering the online eye exams doesn’t think the law applies to them, the founder said he doesn't want to take any chances by operating in Michigan.

“We're afraid that even if our lawyers give us the green light (to operate in Michigan), the entrenched industry would use this law against us to litigate us out of the state,” says Aaron Dallek, founder of Chicago-based start-up Opternative.

Dallek believes there is no other law like it in the country.

The bill passed unanimously in the state senate, and received only two “no” votes in the House, including one from Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor. Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said he voted against it because he thought it was anti-free market.

“A person can make the choice. They can understand the difference between this and a full-fledged eye health exam,” he said.

The Michigan Optometric Association declined to say how actively it lobbied against SB 853. According to state filings, it has spent between $19,179 and $25,998 in each of the past five years on lobbying.

Opternative has developed a system of algorithms to perform a series of online eye tests that can measure nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. A group of licensed professionals review the data and provide a signed prescription by a licensed, board-certified eye care professional in the state where the user resides. The company says it will be in full FDA compliance by the time it goes live.

Currently, the primary way consumers get a pair of prescription glasses is to go to an optometrist's office where they would undergo several eye health exams, including a refractive eye exam to measure vision. The process can last 30 minutes or more and cost at least $50. Patients are often directed to in-office optician practices, where they could spend hundreds of dollars on designer frames and specialty lenses.

Opternative markets itself as a timesaving, affordable alternative. Patients can now shop for frames and lenses using a variety of websites, some offering virtual try-on or free delivery of sample frames to try on at home. Dallek believes on-line eye exams are the obvious next step.

“It is the way medicine is going,” he said. “We are using technology to advance and improve the overall patient experience and laws like the one passed in Michigan prevent innovations that allow consumers to make their own choices.”

Dallek said the service does not replace a comprehensive eye health exam and recommends users see a licensed eye professional every two years. Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he introduced the bill because an office eye exam revealed a debilitating eye disease in his wife.

“Thank God, because it could have caused blindness,” he said. “She had no pain or symptoms.”

Dallek said Opternative is designed to shut down if it senses any eye health red flags, such as previous eye surgery or chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

Tele-medicine has been on the radar of investors. Opternative has secured $1 million in venture capital funding and SB853 was introduced not long after.

“We believe the bill was directly correlated, that it was intended to stop us specifically by entrenched interests,” Dallek said.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in cases of economic freedom, says Michigan's law sounds like a case of protectionist legislation.

“Too often, we see government regulation that is designed to protect an established business's profit margins instead of the public safety,” said IJ attorney Robert McNamara. “Whether it's established dentists trying to wall out independent teeth whiteners or established funeral directors trying to shut down independent casket sales, public power is frequently used simply to achieve private gain. That's unconstitutional.

“The government can't pass laws just to protect favored businesses from economic competition,” McNamara continued. “Regulations should protect the public from genuinely dangerous things; it shouldn't protect businesses from other businesses who want to give consumers a better deal or a better product.”


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Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.