Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Big money, sex and eyeglasses

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonsville, right, talks with Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, during the Assembly session at the Capitol in Sacramento Wednesday, May 28, 2014.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonsville, right, talks with Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, during the Assembly session at the Capitol in Sacramento Wednesday, May 28, 2014. AP

This is a tale about high-powered politics, big money and even sex – a tale, believe it or not, about eyeglasses and contact lenses.

Research by the Vision Council of America indicates that about three-quarters of Americans wear corrective eyewear of some kind. If one applies that statistic to California, it translates into nearly 30 million people.

Even if those Californians are spending, either directly or through insurance, just $200 per year each on examinations and eyewear, it’s big bucks, about $6 billion. And in California’s Capitol, when an issue’s stakes are that high, its politics can be harsh.

Segments of the optical industry – opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists, eyewear retailers, etc. – have jousted among themselves for decades over slices of the multibillion-dollar pie, which are largely divvied up by state law.

During one outbreak of optical hostilities some years back, for example, one faction dispatched technicians to a national political convention to offer free eye exams to delegates, many of them legislators, and their families.

Another clash years ago had an unusual complication. Two lobbyists for opposing optical interests were both keeping intimate company – on separate occasions, of course – with the chief of staff to the governor.

Current infighting has to do with a long-standing state law that prohibits direct business relationships between optometrists and “registered dispensing opticians.”

Three years ago, after a protracted legal battle, a federal appellate court upheld the law, seemingly prohibiting the one-stop-shop approaches to vision services being offered by corporations such as Wal-Mart.

It was not, however, the end of the story. Wal-Mart and its allies have been pushing the Legislature to legalize their optical operations, but a bill to do that this year, Assembly Bill 595 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, stalled in the Assembly.

Alejo then drafted a new bill, Assembly Bill 684, to prohibit state regulators from cracking down on illegal optical providers for one year. That bill whipped through the Assembly on a 76-0 vote and awaits a Senate vote after its summer recess.

It’s a little odd that Democratic legislators, who often denounce Wal-Mart for its supposed opposition to unions, would be eager to protect its lucrative optical business.

Wal-Mart and other proponents say AB 684 will give them time to create a new regulatory model, but opponents, such as the California Association of Dispensing Opticians, have termed it a “get out of jail free card.”

Opponents also include the California Association of Optometrists, whose members are allowed to both provide eye exams and sell eyewear, and Vision Service Plan, a leading optical care insurer.

The underlying question, as with so many legislative medical measures, is whether state regulations have been rendered obsolete by technology and expanding demands for service.

It’s a multibillion-dollar issue for the optical industry.

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