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Telehealth company settles with Pennsylvania, 10 other states for $500K

A person gets an eye exam.
Damian Dovarganes
An eye exam is performed on a patient.

Pennsylvania is one of 11 states to reach a $500,000 settlement with a telehealth company that provides optometry services. This comes after an investigation into Illinois-based Visibly and its claims that the company’s online eye test is as accurate as an in-person exam.

The marketing of Visibly — formerly known as Opternative — raised the ire of the American Optometric Association, which led the Food and Drug Administration to issue a recall for the online test in 2019 on the grounds that the company was not authorized to market it. A multi-state investigation followed.

Dr. Ron Benner, the optometric association’s president, says while there is a place for telemedicine in his field, he thinks companies such as Visibly need to be explicit about its limitations.

“Was the app trying to get people in, just to do a quickie acuity and to sell them a pair of glasses? Or was the intention to actually care for the patient’s health and their vision status?” said Benner. “It appeared to us that there were shortcuts being taken.”

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In addition to concerns that Visibly would not fit patients with the correct prescriptions, Benner notes that other health conditions are detected during optometric visits, such as autoimmune disorders, cancers and diabetes. He questions whether that same level of care is provided by Visibly and its competitors.

In addition to the monetary settlement, Visibly must disclose that its online vision test is not a substitute for in-person care. CEO Brent Rasmussen says the marketing practices at the center of this investigation predate his time with Visibly.

“The founders of the company thought the technology would not have to go through any [Food and Drug Administration] approval process. That turned out not to be true,” said Rasmussen, who notes the agreement with Pennsylvania and the other states is not an admission that the company did anything wrong.

In addition to the monetary award, Visibly may not market or sell any product to consumers, unless it can be legally marketed or sold in accordance with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, or other FDA authority. The FDA approved Visibly for its vision acuity test last August.

Pennsylvania’s portion of the settlement will be $73,000. The state Attorney General’s office says most of that money will go into the commonwealth’s general fund.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.