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Optometrists, contact lens retailers fight battle along blurred lines

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Editor’s Note: As the 2015 Legislative Session approaches, FloridaPolitics.com is reporting on several “legislative food fights” likely to break out during the annual lawmaking period. These food fights don’t always make the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, but they are the kind of industry vs. industry or intra-industry turfbattles that drive Tallahassee — and expand the economics for state lobbyists. The first profile focused on an expected scrum between Big Tobacco and trial lawyersa second story focused on the tax exemption on jet fuel purchases, while a third dealt with Internet-driven ticket reselling. Today’s installment takes a look at a new front in the “Eyeball Wars.”

Yet another legislative food fight is forming in the distance, though you might have to squint to see it if you’re myopic — or short on cash.

Last summer, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee convened an antitrust panel to investigate whether contact lens giants AlconBaucsch & Lomb and Johnson & Johnson were in violation of federal laws against commercial collusion, after the firms allegedly set price floors on their products, prohibiting retailers from selling their products any cheaper than a set price. The practice is referred to within the industry and by regulators as “unilateral pricing policies” or UPPs.

Of the obvious benefits the firms would reap from such a floor, squeezing out their upstart competitors at 1-800-CONTACTS would be chief among them. Another would be to provide an incentives to optometrists, who would enjoy built-in profit from selling their wares as opposed to others priced more competitively.

Novartis — makers of Alcon contact lenses, which make up about 20 percent of the market nationally — says the contact makers have had to make aggressive pricing and marketing moves to prevent “showrooming,” a consumer practice wherein a patient will look at contacts at an optometrist’s office and absorb their time and expertise only to spend their dollars at online retailers who sell the same lenses.

But that’s their prerogative, argue 1-800-CONTACTS and other eyewear discounters. As general counsel for the firm R. Joe Zeidner testified at the aformentioned antitrust panel, “If the point is to save consumers money” — as opposed to make manufacturers money–“I don’t know why we have a minimum price we can’t go below.”

The feds ended up not coming down very hard on either side, leaving most of the substantive conflict to devolve to the state level. Towards that end Brandon Sen. Tom Lee has filed SB 1400, which would limit commercial practices on the part of retailers, giving the incumbent optometrists a leg up.

These issues will also play out on the field of Tallahassee influence this session, as 1-800-CONTACTS stocks up on influence firepower in retaining lobbyists to do battle with the Florida Optometric Association — a group closely aligned with House Speaker-designate Jose Oliva, among others. The issue will spice up the usual scope of practice battles which wage during session.

On the retailers’ side, 1-800-Contacts, Inc. has retained Marc Reichenfelder of Landmarc Strategies; Brecht Heuchan of the Labrador Company; Richard Heffley and Kelly Horton of Heffley & AssociatesRichard Coates of Tidewater ConsultingMissy Timmins of  Timmins Consulting; and Cameron Yarbrough of Yarbrough Consulting.

Manufacturer Johnson & Johnson also have a dog in the fight on the retail side. Jeff Hartley, Andrea Reilly and Jim Naff from Smith Bryan & Myers will handle that end of the effort.

The Florida Optometric Association, for its part, has its own well-established stable of influence professionals.

Working on its behalf this Session will be the Rubin Group‘s William RubinMelissa AkesonHeather Turnbull and Christopher FinkbeinerMichael Corcoran, Jeff JohnstonMichael Cantens and Amanda Stewart of Corcoran & JohnstonDavid Ramba and Allison Carvajal of Ramba Consulting Group; Dr. Kenneth Lawson of Kenneth Wayne Lawson, O.D; and Frank and Tracy Mayernick of The Mayernick Group LLC.

This is a battle where far more money than ink will be spilled. But for Capitol insiders, this is a fight with serious implications in terms of the state of regulatory affairs in an emerging market — and Tallahassee pecking order.

The smart money is on the FOA, but the upstarts will almost certainly give Capitol food fight watchers sometime to chew on. With a little luck they may even sell some Accuvues to reporters like yours truly, straining to cover a turf battle fought largely in the fine print.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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