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A New Owner OD Needs to Navigate the Bartering Culture in His New Community

“I plow your driveway when it snows; you serve my family’s eye needs.”

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ANDREW RICE, a Maryland native and new grad, had recently purchased a retiring optometrist’s practice. He and his wife fell in love with rural northern Minnesota at the second meeting with then-owner Roland Dibbs. While this was a big decision, there was something about Roland that put Andrew at ease.

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ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NATALIE TAYLOR is owner of Artisan Eyewear in Meredith, NH. She offers regional private practice consulting and ABO/COPE approved presentations. Email her at [email protected]

During his first month of ownership Andrew closed the office and performed major renovations. In addition to updating the floors and painting the walls, he raised the ceilings and removed walls to make the space more modern.

The practice finally re-opened and Andrew was able to meet Roland’s patients, who all seemed to also be Roland’s friends and neighbors. Andrew was initially enthused, as he imagined that soon they would also be his friends and neighbors. Then he realized how this may impact his business.

“Fitting your son to contact lenses will be $175,” explained Andrew to one patient’s parents, seated in the exam room. “The annual cost for lenses can be around $400, give or take. Once I fit him this year, future annual contact lens visits will be well under $100.”

“Well, that’s all right,” said the father, “I plow the lane to Roland’s farmhouse in the winter so that more or less covers it.”

It took Andrew a minute to understand what one fact had to do with the other. “Roland did retire last month, and I’ve purchased the office,” Andrew explained.

“But this is still his place,” the father said with confidence. “I mean, the name is the same, the staff are all the same.”

“I have purchased the business from Roland,” Andrew reassured him.  The man looked at his wife and furrowed his brow. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Well, we don’t have insurance, and we weren’t expecting to pay.”

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The entire family was looking at Andrew, waiting for him to solve the awkward issue at hand. Not one for confrontation, Andrew quickly blurted, “Having a reliable person to plow sounds great!”

That evening Andrew’s wife Ginny took him to dinner to celebrate his first day. The day’s strange interactions were a hot topic.

“Roland’s sister-in-law dropped in to talk to the optician and asked her to find out if her family would still be allowed to buy glasses at cost,” Andrew said. “The plow service actually sounds pretty great, but the guy has four kids and we’re talking about at least a few thousand in services and materials!”

Ginny sighed. “The remodel put us into debt, Andrew. As our bookkeeper, this isn’t in our best interest. I’d rather buy a snow blower for $400 and do our tiny driveway myself, if it means we can put that family’s payment toward our debt.”

“Fair point. The receptionist told me Roland’s barber is on the schedule for tomorrow,” he chuckled, rubbing his shaved head.

“I’m going to text Roland right now,” said Ginny, grabbing her phone. She spoke aloud as she typed: “‘You sure had lots of barter deals with patients. Not sure we can honor. What are your thoughts?’” Almost immediately, Roland replied: “Your business, your choice.”

“Thanks for the help, Roland,” Andrew said sarcastically.

“Oh man,” groaned Ginny, “What if these deals are a major component of the business? What if the community turns against us?”

The Big Questions

  • Should Roland have divulged the extent of his practice’s bartering?
  • If bartering is the accepted culture, should Andrew adapt or run the business his way?
  • How can Andrew explain his new policy?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Mona D. Fort Wayne, IN

1. Yes, the trade agreements should have been divulged.
2. Bartering is not in Andrew’s best interest. With a new practice loan and renovation costs, he is cash-poor. The barter expected is not just for his service but for goods. Andrew will have lab bills and frame costs out-of-pocket to accept barter trades he doesn’t even need or want. This will be a cash flow disaster. It is better to have the patients leave which creates no cash flow rather than to barter and have a negative cash flow.
3. Andrew should ask Roland to provide a list of all individuals with whom he had a barter agreement. Further, he should request that Roland send each individual a letter explaining that Andrew is the new practice owner and that he will not honor old barter agreements. This letter should be approved by Andrew. If the staff know a barter agreement existed, they should politely quote Andrew’s usual examination fees when an appointment is scheduled. Then there is no surprise after services are rendered.

Jen H. Sandpoint, ID

1. Roland probably wasn’t being intentionally misleading. Selling a practice is hectic and stressful. Andrew and Ginny should give him some slack for the oversight, if they truly are embracing the small-town experience.
2. We do trade-of-service, but we don’t accept every offer or inquiry. Andrew should adapt as seems viable. Maybe he can offer to trade services with the snowplow guy’s family for 1-2 kids, and then insist on payment for the remainder. Since only one son has been seen so far, they have time and opportunity to barter out the rest of the family. Also, it might be good for Ginny to participate in future barter conversations with patients. Andrew can provide the warmth, and Ginny can provide the tactful backbone. Patients usually appreciate knowing the honest struggles of optometrists as fellow business owners, because it opens the door to genuine relationship.
3. Andrew’s front staff should ask each patient about their intended method of payment as part of the scheduling process, which will allow the chance for renegotiations prior to appointment.

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Leisa S. Newport Beach, CA

How about trying a different approach? Have an open house party with trunk show which would allow the community to meet the new doctor. There is a huge difference between the philosophy of the older generation OD’s and the fairly recent graduates. Just wait you might only be scratching the surface of treatment philosophy and contact lens evaluation etc. Barter can get out of control quickly, and no matter how you end, you will never be able to please everybody. After all you are a different doctor so change is automatic. Perhaps until established, postpone doing any barters until your feet are on the ground. At least then you are maintaining the same status for all your patients not hand-picking which barter you accept.
If there are other practices in the community, obviously creating an immediate distinction between the retired doctor and the new doctor, and hopefully creating excitement in new philosophy, frame styles and product would probably help.

Chani M.  Highland Park, NJ

When I bought my practice in 2015, I was faced with a similar situation — every other patient expected the same outrageous discount they had been receiving for the last twenty years. In this case, yes, the seller should have revealed the extent and nature of the barter system. I think if Andrew keeps going with this barter system he will lose money, but will he lose patients? If he loses patients that are not paying him, he’s not losing anything at all. If he is the only practice in the area, patients will have to get used to his new policies. He may want to structure the fees attractively for the non-insured (without doing anything non-kosher). Each situation is an individual case and he may need to address each one as it comes up rather than making a blanket decision. He also should make prominent signage in the front stating the new policies in a friendly way. This may take years to resolve… trust me, I know.

Pam P. Downers Grove, IL

Roland probably should have been up front about the bartering, wouldn’t his books have shown this activity? Possibly Andrew could accept the barter for the first year and outline what would occur after, requesting invoice to invoice follow up to make sure he was getting fair deal? Also, would have to change the terms so that the former owner was not reaping the benefits. Right away, a letter to any remaining patients not seen in the office explaining the transfer of ownership and what new policies would be would be appropriate. Andrew may need to set up meetings with some of the patients before seeing them to work out any barters, discounts or new policies going forward.

Jamie L. Bradenton, FL

He should put a sign in the reception area welcoming new patients and introducing his pricing policies. He could put a sentence or two that thanks the previous owner for his long-time relationship with his patients and that he looks forward to making new relationships with these same patients. He should be open to the idea of bartering, but only if it is a fair trade for both parties. If his staff has access to patient’s previous exam charges (or lack of) ahead of time, a phone call to the patient explaining that the patient should be prepared to pay would be prudent.

Ann H. Sturgeon Bay, WI

Absolutely stop the bartering. Andrew needs to prove to the existing patients what a great doctor he is and the rest will fall into place. He should have his office manager tell them his accountant won’t allow him to barter. He should support his community outside of work by going to high school sporting events and showing his patients he cares about their families. Support as many fundraisers as he can afford. That will mean a lot and his patients will love him for his generosity. He and his wife have bills to pay! This is now his business, not Dr. Roland’s, and the community will adapt to his rules.

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Rick R. Girard, PA

1. I don’t think Roland had any obligation to divulge that information, but it would have been nice to have a heads up. Didn’t Andrew take a look at the books before he bought the place? “Why don’t you have any profit, Roland?” “I barter for everything.”
2. I suppose he could adapt to a certain point but he’s going to have to run things the way he wants or go out of business.
3. That’s something that has to be explained before the exam even begins.

Robert M. Edina, MN

Yes, Roland should have highlighted the extent of his side deals. I would have thought He would have followed Roland for a few weeks in the practice and much of this would have come to light. Andrew should think about the bartering aspect and get some professional advice as there could be tax consequences, as well as Medicare issues, with trading services. He needs to take Roland to lunch and find out how pervasive the bartering thing is. If it is small, I would use what worked for me and explain to those whose barter did not meet my needs we would be able to offer them a cash discount instead on products. Should it be a large part of the practice, he will need to explain to his patients that he has researched bartering and found that these transactions must be reported as taxable income. The simple truth is that if done legally it is more trouble than it is worth.

Nikki G. Oakdale MN

Roland SHOULD have been up front about his bartering services. However, if you purchase an existing practice and the claimed income on the financial statement were the basis of your decision, then you would have also planned your spending around only those funds. So, the barter services should then become irrelevant to your expected income. Going forward with a new awareness, Andrew could offer those people a payment plan, understanding there will be some period of transition, and those patients should have NEVER gotten so far as the exam room without having payment arrangements in place. Therefore, to avoid this conversation in the future, the entire front office staff should be trained on the policy for handling past barter patients and that dialogue should be consistently carried from the front desk, to the exam room and on to the dispensary.

Jennifer L. Dansville, NY

If you have a service that you can trade for someone else’s’ by all means barter dollar for dollar. It’s certainly a way to connect with people. Always say, “This is a deal between us exclusively,” so they aren’t telling everyone. I’m pretty certain that you won’t be able to duplicate the barters your previous owner had but assess each offer and explain why you will or cannot accommodate their request. Be respectful of their offer. If Andrew is not comfortable bartering then telling his patients he’s been advised by the IRS not to participate in bartering should be enough to scare anyone. In small communities, it’s pretty common. You need new sunglasses and I need a tree cut down…Your son needs glasses and I need to rent a tent from your company….I’ll knock $25 bucks off today if you plow the parking lot after the snow we’re getting tonight…

Michael D.  Eldersburg, MD

1. Yes, ethically Roland should have let Andrew know. Shame on Andrew’s lawyers/accountants for missing that.
2. He should have a discussion with other professionals in the area and see if this is the custom or isolated to Roland. Change the name of the business so patients know they are dealing with a new entity. Perhaps a letter from Roland to the patients explaining new ownership and how great Andrew is.

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