ANNAPOLIS – Barbers have to be certified in Maryland, but the people who fill eyeglass prescriptions don’t even need a high school diploma.
That “absurd” situation presents health hazards, say critics, who are pushing a bill that would require Maryland opticians to undergo state-approved training and win certification, as they are in 21 other states.
“My concern is that this profession … is getting so stretched-out and expanded that they’re letting anyone do this,” said Terry Rabinowitz, president of the Opticians’ Association of Maryland, which is backing the certification push.
But larger chain companies accuse their smaller rivals, like Rabinowitz, of using legislative dirty tricks to gain a better share of the eyewear market.
“It’s easy to make comments that we’re irresponsible, but I’ll be damned if he has any proof of it,” said M. Albert Figinski, an attorney for the National Association of Optometrics and Opticians, which represents many of the chain stores.
NAOO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Rozak said there were about 432,000 pairs of corrective lenses sold in Maryland last year, but only 30 complaints about care by opticians were filed with the Attorney General’s Office.
The smaller, independent shops “are attempting to gut the major chains by virtue of limiting their manpower,” said Rozak.
At issue is House Bill 411, which would establish educational requirements for opticians and designate a board to hear consumer complaints.
The bill does not specify the level of training. But programs could range from a handful of classes that prepare budding opticians for the certification exam to a two-year program that would give students an associate applied science degree, said Theresa Majewski, chairwoman of Allied Health at Essex Community College.
Rabinowitz, whose organization represents more than 600 of the approximately 3,000 opticians in Maryland, is worried that larger companies like Pearle Vision and department store opticians have sacrificed quality and experience for cheap wages when hiring employees.
At a Feb. 24 hearing, Rabinowitz cited several investigative reports that showed optician inaccuracy.
A report done for “CBS This Morning” asked seven different opticians working for chain companies in Long Island, N.Y., to fill an eyeglass prescription. All seven were deemed unsatisfactory after evaluation by optometric experts, said Audrey Latman, associate producer of CBS’s investigative unit.
One of the experts consulted for that report called optician certification “a terrific idea.”
Dr. Robert Rosenberg, a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry in New York City, said the only reason the chains oppose certification is because they would have to pay higher salaries to more qualified employees.
Big companies will not be able to hire people at low wages if they have to be certified, said Douglas Corby, legislative chairman for the Optician’s Association of Maryland.
“It’ll hit their bottom line,” said Corby. He called the certification proposal “a no-brainer” and said the current lack of certification represents a significant health risk to consumers.
“Obviously, this is absurd,” he said, of laws that license barbers but not opticians.
Inaccurate lens and frame measurements can lead to headaches, poor vision, and permanent eye damage, said Rabinowitz, who owns an eyewear shop in Chestertown.
But opponents of the bill say certification would address a problem that doesn’t exist with a solution that doesn’t work.
They noted that New York requires an optician to be certified unless a licensed physician or optometrist is present to supervise. That law was in effect when CBS did the report that uncovered poor-quality work by Long Island opticians.
The Maryland bill would essentially mirror the New York regulations.
Figinski noted that the 30 complaints to the Attorney General’s Office last year about opticians were all filed as consumer protection cases. Of those, 15 have been resolved, seven are still open, and eight were unresolved between consumers and opticians.
“In short, there is no consumer advocacy unit demand for enforcement under the Consumer Protection Act or otherwise. There is no consumer demand for HB 411,” Figinski wrote in a letter to the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Opponents note that the bill leaves it up to the Board of Physician Quality Assurance to set standards and enforce any regulations. But the board wants no part of optician certification, said spokeswoman Marie Savage, and sponsors agreed to strike the board from the bill.
And Majewski, of Essex Community College, said her office will not begin to implement a program until the bill passes, because of the cost and time involved.
“I wouldn’t put energy into it unless I know we’re going to get students,” she said.
The current system, in which opticians get much of their training in-house, has worked well for nearly a century in the state and should not be tampered with, said opponents of certification.
“In a business that has existed for a hundred years that has no proven, documented defects, you can’t change it unless you have something to provide a substitute for in-house training,” Figinski said.
He said the independents are desperate to do with legislation what they cannot do in a free marketplace.
“Would he (Corby) like to set our prices while he’s at it?” Figinski asked.