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The B.C. government is allowing online sales of contact lenses and eye glasses, the first province to let consumers shop without renewing a prescription from an eye-health professional.

The change, which takes effect on May 1, follows a long-running battle in the province over who should provide prescriptions for vision care.

B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon said he made the change because of a Court of Appeal ruling that ordered online contact lens retailer Coastal Contacts to stop operations by May 1 or persuade the province to allow internet sales. He said that consumers will benefit from having more choices for buying glasses or contacts.

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The new regulations bring about a change that years of industry lobbying failed to achieve. It means that people with existing prescriptions can order new glasses or lenses online without a visit to the optometrist for a full eye exam. As well, opticians won't need to have their sight-test results reviewed by a medical doctor before patients can get their prescriptions filled.

Mr. Falcon now has a fight on his hands with the clinicians who dispense prescriptions. Optometrists say their eye exams detect medical conditions that are not picked up in opticians' sight tests.

"He's rather blatant - he's putting the health of British Columbians at risk for one online contact lens sales company," said Thomas Freddo, head of the University of Waterloo's School of Optometry.

He said B.C. is at odds with Health Canada, which discourages consumers from buying contact lenses online, saying it "may damage your eyes if they have not been prescribed and fitted by a health-care professional."

Mr. Falcon said people must still see an optician or an optometrist first, but they will be able to take advantage of online sales for prescription renewals. The Health Minister said there is no strong scientific evidence that most healthy adults need regular eye exams - a point Prof. Freddo disputes. However, the province will still pay for regular exams for people under 19 and over 65.

Under the new regulations in B.C., consumers must be reminded that the opticians' sight test is not the same as an eye-health exam.

"We are treating people like adults," Mr. Falcon said. "If they have symptoms, they should see an eye-health professional."

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He said professionals who oppose the change are worried about losing business.

"There are economic issues at stake here. Whenever you make a change that effects people's economic situation - or their perception of it -- they get upset."

Prof. Freddo predicted tens of thousands of British Columbians will be put at risk - the threat of undiagnosed glaucoma alone makes the situation unacceptable, he said.

The B.C. government tried to make these changes in 2004 and found itself in the middle of a turf war between opticians and optometrists. "We let it sit because it was a big headache," Mr. Falcon conceded.

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