Chicago online eye exam company sues South Carolina over ban

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Chicago-based Opternative offers online eye exams. | Opternative

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A company that provides prescriptions for glasses and contacts using online exams filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a South Carolina law banning the practice.

The lawsuit from Chicago-based Opternative calls the law passed in May “economic protectionism.” Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the measure but legislators overrode it.

At least two other states have passed similar laws barring prescriptions based solely on a computerized eye test. Several other states have regulations that don’t allow the practice.

The lawsuit is the first to challenge such restrictions, said attorney Robert McNamara with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice. The suit asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional and prevent its enforcement.

“The purpose of this new law is not to protect the public health or safety but instead to protect the profits of established businesses,” it reads.

Legislators voted overwhelmingly — 39 to 3 in the Senate and 100to 1 in the House — to override Haley’s veto.

The lawsuit includes Haley’s entire veto message, which accused eye care professionals of wanting to “block new technologies that expand low-cost access to vision corrective services.”

Critics countered by accusing Haley of putting competition above quality health care.

At the time, sponsoring Sen. Ray Cleary, a Republican, said in-office eye exams by an optometrist can catch problems, including tumors, that an online, self-assessment test can’t.

Opternative offers $40 to $60 prescriptions within 24 hours for people ages 18 to 50 with a computer and smartphone.

Customers taking the test are asked to take a certain number of steps away from their computer screen and use the computer like a digital eye chart. A text message sent to a customer’s smartphone allows it to be used as a remote control. Answers to multiple questions, along with medical records, are sent to a state-licensed ophthalmologist contracted by the company. Inconsistencies mean a prescription won’t be written, Opternative co-founder Aaron Dallek has said.

More than 100,000 patients in 39 states have signed up for the service, he said Thursday.

The company launched in South Carolina last summer but ended the service when the law took effect.

Opternative is suing the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, a Cabinet agency that reports to Haley.

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