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Know Your Rights When Buying Eyeglasses

Under federal law, eye doctors must provide you with a copy of your prescription

spinner image Close up of a pair of eyeglasses sitting on top of an eyeglass prescription.
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How’s this for an eye-opening dilemma: You receive a vision test from an optometrist, then decide to shop elsewhere for glasses. But the eye doctor — unhappy that you’re buying your glasses from another supplier — refuses to provide you with the prescription.

Such encounters are not infrequent — and they violate federal law. In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent letters to 28 eyeglass prescribers — ophthalmologists and optometrists — for violating its Ophthalmic Practice Rules (frequently called the Eyeglass Rule), which allows consumers to comparison shop for eyeglasses.

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The Eyeglass Rule, implemented in 1978, requires doctors to provide patients with their prescription immediately after their exam, “even if the patient does not request it.” It also prohibits prescribers from:

  • Requiring patients to buy eyeglasses to receive their prescription
  • Forcing patients to sign a waiver
  • Placing a liability waiver on the prescription
  • Requiring patients to pay an additional fee to receive their prescription
  • Refusing to perform an eye exam unless a patient buys glasses, contact lenses or other ophthalmic goods

“The rule was enacted to give consumers unconditional access to their prescriptions,” says Alysa Bernstein, a staff attorney in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Consumers should be able to buy from their prescriber or from somewhere else based on price or quality or just their preferences. A prescriber can’t say, ‘Well, I’m only going to give you a prescription if you buy eyeglasses from me or if you sign this waiver.’ ”

The Contact Lens Rule, implemented in 2004, provides the same requirements; in October 2020 it was expanded to require that prescribers keep a record showing that they provided the patient with the prescription and, if they provided a digital copy of the prescription, maintain a record of the prescription for at least three years.

Violators of the rules can face legal action and “civil penalties of up to $42,530 per violation,” the FTC noted in its 28 letters. 

Consumers “shouldn’t be shy” about asking for their prescriptions, says Bernstein. Her advice: Don’t take no for an answer, and photograph or photocopy your prescription once you receive it (that way, if you lose it, you won’t need to ask the prescriber for a replacement). Sometimes the staff will promise to email it to you; be sure to follow up and make sure they do so. And don’t accept their potential argument that they can’t give it to you because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects the privacy rights of patients. HIPAA doesn’t apply here.

Even if you buy your glasses or contacts from the place where you obtain your prescription, ask for a copy of the prescription anyway: You might decide to purchase another pair somewhere else before you’re due for another exam.

Most eye professionals know the rules and will likely provide your prescription without an issue. But if they don’t, you can file a complaint with the FTC (the 28 recent warning letters were all prompted by patient complaints). Want more info? The FTC offers a guide outlining consumers’ prescription rights for glasses and contact lenses.

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