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Senate Antitrust Panel Eyes Contact Lens Pricing Policies

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

NPR's Business News starts with an eye exam. Contact lenses were the focus of a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday. A Senate antitrust panel examined policies whereby contact lens makers set the minimum prices retailers could charge for their products. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar said for 35 million Americans contact lenses are an essential part of their daily lives. She also raised concerns that four companies - Bausch & Lomb, Johnson & Johnson, Alcon and CooperVision - she says make up nearly 100 percent of the market.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: This does raise legitimate questions about what the policies will do to competition and what kind of prices consumers will be paying because of the policies. Are they lower? Are they higher? What is the effect?

BOOKER: Of the big four, only CooperVision has not set minimum prices in recent months. Millicent Knight works for Johnson & Johnson, the nation's top contact lens manufacturer.

MILLICENT KNIGHT: We believe we can better compete with other manufacturers in the contact lens market. And more importantly, UPP will lead to lower prices for a large majority of our consumers.

BOOKER: Under UPP, or universal pricing policies, manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson tell retailers they can't sell their contact lenses below a certain price. And if they do, their supply will be cut off. Joe Zeidner is the general counsel for the online retail giant 1-800 Contacts. He warned lawmakers that price-setting policies are bad for consumers.

JOE ZEIDNER: They will pay higher prices, especially as discounters drop out of the market and the eye care providers gain more pricing power.

BOOKER: Senator Klobuchar says over the next six months she's going to keep a close eye on contact lens prices. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.