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A Patient Pushes an Optician to Bend the Rules. Is This A Gray Area Or Are They Committing Fraud?

The case of the fraudulent filing.

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COLIN WAS STRESSED. His coworker had called out an hour before her shift, leaving him to run the optical floor solo. Two patients were already moving through the frame boards when a tech escorted Dr. Tam out of an exam room and over to Colin.

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 info@meredithoptical.com

Dr. Tam was a local general practitioner. Colin was relatively new to the Utah practice but he had already met Dr. Tam during his son’s eye exam.

“Nice to see you again,” said Colin, pumping the doctor’s hand. “Did your prescription change?”

“My reading power is being bumped up,” said Dr. Tam amicably. “I’ll get new progressives; you have my insurance information?”

“I do! I’m working with a few other people, but I’ll do my best to get you out of here quickly,” promised Colin. “I’ve got five frames pulled for you to start, see what you think and I’ll be right back.” After checking in with the first two patients, Colin bounded over to the reception station and pulled benefit printouts from Dr. Tam’s chart. When he came back Dr. Tam was already seated at an optical station.

“I like these,” he said, clasping one of the pairs Colin had selected, “and I want to order these Maui Jim sunglasses under my son Richard’s insurance plan. Do you remember him? He was in last month.”

Colin sat across from Dr. Tam and used a nearby laptop to look up the boy’s information. “It looks like he wasn’t given a prescription at his exam. Your insurance plan has a minimum prescription requirement to pay for the sunglasses,” Colin explained.

“Oh, that’s right,” said Dr. Tam, reaching into his breast pocket. He pulled out a prescription pad and, in front of Colin, wrote out a prescription for his son. “It needs to be a half-diopter, right?”

Colin nodded numbly, and awkwardly took the script when Dr. Tam handed it to him. “I need to take his measurements…”

“Just use what you have from last year,” said Dr. Tam. “It’s tough to get him in, between everyone’s busy schedules.” Sure enough, Colin found an entry in the EHR for another pair of Maui Jim sunglasses. Colin priced out the orders, took measurements and escorted Dr. Tam to reception to collect his copays.

Later that afternoon Colin found time to enter Dr. Tam’s orders. However, when he entered the authorization number that the front desk had pulled he found it was actually for Dr. Tam’s son – Richard Tam Jr. Dr. Tam’s benefit wasn’t available until the first of next month.

Colin immediately called the number on file for Dr. Tam. His wife answered their home’s landline and Colin explained the situation. “I can hold the order for three weeks and then process the exact day his benefit resets?” Colin offered.

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“No, no,” said Mrs. Tam. “He’s been complaining for weeks, I don’t want to delay. I’ll just give you my credit card.”

Colin rushed the two orders but it was weeks before Dr. Tam finally came back for his dispense.

“Oh, these are great!” said Dr. Tam enthusiastically, studying the near vision card with his new progressives.

Colin beamed. “Did you bring your son? I was going to adjust his sunglasses for him.”

Dr. Tam chuckled. “Well, they’re really for me,” he shared. “Of course I’ll share them with him if he wants, but I need them when I’m wearing my contact lenses, and I lost last year’s pair.”

“Ah,” Colin nodded. “And I assume your wife told you she ended up paying for your glasses since you weren’t eligible?”

“Yes, it reset this past Monday, right?” asked Dr. Tam. “Just give me the invoice with Monday’s date and I’ll submit it.”

“I don’t think we’re allowed to change the date,” said Colin. “Technically the insurance company considers that fraud.”

Dr. Tam scoffed. “If anyone gives you a hard time, you just have them call me,” he replied.

The Big Questions

  • If you were Colin, would you have done anything differently when discovering Dr. Tam’s eligibility was incorrect?
  • Assuming Colin is physically able to revise the EHR to date the order to the first of the month, should he provide the invoice for Dr. Tam to submit his claim?
  • Would you dispense the sunglasses, or return them, accept the loss, and report Dr. Tam for fraud?

 

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Maureen G. Oak Park, IL

Didn’t Colin look at the name on the benefit sheet?! And seriously who would order anything based on a script a patient wrote out? I would have said, “I am sorry I need a valid doctor Rx, otherwise it’s not valid and I can lose my job over it.” We always have the sheet printed out with the patient’s name and benefits eligible highlighted. Colin sounds like a pushover; we have had patients who want to use their frame benefit for plano sunglasses and our answer is always, “No, that’s committing fraud.” I can’t believe any ethical optometrist would endanger his practice by agreeing to do this.

Rigo L. Indio, CA

Let me start by saying we all “bend” the rules from time to time for some of our “VIP” patients. That being said there is a line to draw when bending the rules becomes fraud or feels wrong. As opticians we feel that any professional that walks into our office will always do the right thing. So when doctor Tam wrote an Rx for his son I would have told him that I didn’t feel comfortable filling the Rx, even though I knew what he was doing, and that I would rather talk it over with our doctor. At this point he would have to understand that something smelled fishy. When he asked to change the date, I would be frank with him and just say that I would not feel right doing that. If you bend the rules one time the patient expects the same the following year. Sometimes it’s just best not to do things, no matter who the patient is.

Peter N. Belfast, ME

This case is not uncommon. The simple answer to somebody who asks you to lie to the insurance company is: “Do you want me to lie to you?” The answer is usually, “No.” Then you can say, “I’m not going to lie to your insurance company either.”

Lynn M. Fallston, MD

1) I would have done the exact same thing with the eligibility date. If the patient’s wife chose to pay I would take payment and proceed with the order.
2) I would NOT change the date in our EHR to facilitate insurance fraud. Not happening!!
3) I wouldn’t dispense the glasses…BUT it never would’ve gotten that far because….I never would’ve taken the Rx from a GP to begin with. Is that even legal??

Preet K. New York, NY

I’d explain to Dr. Tam that the practice can get audited at any given time, and this is considered insurance fraud. I would offer a discount on a second pair. Colin should not have accepted the Rx written by Dr. Tam as it is an unethical action taken by Dr. Tam. If the doctor who examined Tam Jr. didn’t prescribe any Rx, Colin should follow that. Ask Dr. Tam to reach out to the insurance to find his options to process the sunglasses order or offer to make the phone call on Dr. Tam’s behalf. (This shows customer service.) If Dr. Tam is uncooperative, call the insurance and inform them about Dr. Tam writing the Rx for Tam Jr. Colin shouldn’t change the DOS for the private-pay order even if the EHR system gives him the ability to. Have the patient discuss this with his insurance as well. I wouldn’t recommend processing the sunglasses order unless Dr. Tam follows the right steps. Document everything. Have Dr. Tam sign a liability form, which protects the practice from auditing.

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Kate G. Arlington, VA

Fraud is fraud. Why sully your reputation?

Amelia B. Charleston, SC

Insurance fraud is any act committed to defraud an insurance process. This occurs when a claimant attempts to obtain some benefit or advantage they are not entitled to, or when an insurer knowingly denies some benefit that is due.

Theresa W. Austin, TX

Graciously, the optician should have advised the patient that the prescribing physician had not provided a script for his son, so unfortunately the sunglasses would not be covered by insurance. The optician then should ask, “How do you wish to proceed?” There can never be an exception for fraud.

Daniel M. Rockaway, NY

Of course he should not do any of those things. It is considered fraud and he risks at least his participation in the plan if not the license of the practitioner itself.

Genna L. Milwaukee, WI

Colin did the right thing by attempting to contact Dr. Tam. However, it’s important to speak directly with the patient when they’re responsible for their own care. Speaking with Dr. Tam would’ve given Colin an opportunity to assertively avoid possible fraud and any consequences of it. It would’ve been 100 percent wrong for Colin to modify the invoice date to comply with Dr. Tam’s request. Had the claim been audited, the insurance company would’ve found evidence of fraud in everything from the copay dates to material order dates. Dr. Tam, as a medical practitioner, is required to acknowledge that he understands insurance fraud and its consequences, and as such he should not be instructing other health care providers to commit fraud on his behalf. Were I in Colin’s situation, I would suspect Dr. Tam of committing fraud at his own practice, and would absolutely report Dr. Tam and accept a loss on the materials I ordered, knowing that I did the right thing.

Judy C. Virginia Beach, VA

1) Colin did the right thing by calling immediately when the issue arose.
2) NO! Changing dates on a receipt or in patient records is fraud. This is not a “gray area” in my opinion. Unless the offending doctor owns the insurance company, he doesn’t have any clout with them either.
3) Dispense the eyewear and note the conversation in his record. I would also make the practice owner aware of what his patient requested and that he stated that it was done for him in the past at the practice. Let the doctors discuss the issue. Neither Colin nor any other staff members should have to be caught in the middle of this.

Stewart G. San Francisco, CA

1) NO
2) NO
3) I would make him pay for them—nothing more, nothing less. If he refused, I’d send him to collection, AND I’d dismiss him as a patient.

Taylor K. Ellington, CT

1) Colin handled the situation appropriately when he discovered the eligibility issue—he called the patient immediately. HOWEVER, the first issue really arose when the patient wrote his own prescription. We would not have filled the Rx, as it was not valid. Regardless, Colin should have accepted the wife’s credit card for the full charge amount without insurance and continued with the job.
2) I would assume most systems, like ours, allow for date change on the invoice. However, of course, this is fraud and Colin should not do this.
3) I would have dispensed the sunglasses, as they should have already been paid for in full by the wife. I would advise Dr. Tam he can do what he wishes with the invoices, but that the office cannot and will not change any posting dates as it is fraud.

Bob S. St. Louis, MO

I wonder if Dr. Tam is as loose with insurance policy in his office as he expects Colin to be. While technically he did nothing illegal by writing an Rx for his son, it was an ethically reprehensible thing for a healthcare professional to do. Even worse, he expected Colin to risk his job and the reputation of his company by performing an illegal act. Again, I wonder if it is a standard operating procedure to falsify records in HIS office. If I remember nothing else from optometry school, one thing will be forever ingrained in my mind: “Never change a record. Put a line through the original information, insert the correction, initial and date it.” It’s a digital world now but the advice is still as relevant as in the good old (paper) days.

Leisa L. Newport Beach, CA

Dr. Tam’s eligibility should have been checked before the order was taken for his new glasses. However, since Colin notified Dr. Tam indirectly through his wife the order became a private order and was paid accordingly. The receipt date should not be changed to appease Dr. Tam. In regard to dispensing the Maui Jim sunglasses, Colin submitted the order with the proper Rx information provided for Dr. Tam’s son Richard with the required measurements from Richard’s chart. Technically it should be said that Richard is sharing the glasses with his father, not the other way around. This is one of those areas that is stretching the system by Dr. Tam; Colin was following the Rx provided by Dr. Tam for his son.

Judith W. Orange, CA

No, we do not change invoice dates; that is fraud plain and simple and no patient is worth the legal problems. As far as notifying the patient of his options of waiting till the first of the month or paying for the glasses, that is our standard policy. As far as making glasses without having a proper written prescription—either our own (from records) or from another OD or OMD—we would not do it. We do not feel that a primary MD can give a complete comprehensive eye exam, especially if he is just writing out what is necessary for insurance coverage

Jennifer Torrance, CA

I would have discussed all this with management first to see what options they wanted me to proceed with. If those options comprised my morals or ethics, I would then proceed to remind management that we have an obligation to not just the patients but to the practice and employees to make sure we have a secure livelihood by following the rules. If we continue to bend the rules, we will go down a path of no return and will be held hostage by patients that know we shouldn’t be doing this.

What’s the Brain Squad?

  • If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. eyecare business serving the public, you’re invited to join the INVISION Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting eyecare professionals. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Natalie Taylor is an experienced optometry practice manager for Advanced Care Vision Network and a consultant with Taylor Vision. Learn more at tayloreye.com.

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Real Deal

If This Team of Expo Slackers Worked for You, What Action Would You Take?

They spent most of the all-expenses-paid trip in the hotel bar.

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DR. BENNIGAN’S STAFF of 12 was buzzing. Liz, the office manager, was spreading the word that for the first time ever the practice would be sending some team members to a big optometry conference. The lucky staff members would fly from their home in Lexington, KY to Atlanta, GA for three days of continuing education, special events and expo exhibits.

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 info@meredithoptical.com

Liz asked everyone to email her a short “essay” describing why they wanted to attend and what they hoped to get out of the experience. Based on these essays Dr. Bennigan chose four staff—two opticians and two technicians—plus Liz to lead the trip. She immediately booked the flights so the group could sit together. Dr. Bennigan agreed to pay each staff person their regular wages for an 8-hour workday. Liz carefully scheduled each staff person with CE lectures as well as time to attend the expo. She printed the course handouts and made binders for each attendee.

The morning of the flight Liz met her four co-workers in the office parking lot and everyone loaded into an airport shuttle van. It was early, just after dawn. As they pulled out onto the highway Liz shushed the group to go over some of the details, beginning with her binders.

“I’d recommend reading through your handouts on the plane,” said Liz. “Dr. Bennigan has scheduled a 3-hour staff meeting for when we get back home, and each of us is going to need to present a 3- to 5-minute summary of what we learned at each lecture.”

The group collectively rolled their eyes and shifted in their seats, but no one argued.

“Tomorrow night at 7:30pm we are going to meet up in the hotel bar and walk across the street to a restaurant so we can talk about the first day, okay?” The girls tiredly sipped cups of coffee and stared out the windows.

Liz was booked in a room by herself and spent the first night zoned out in front of the TV. The next morning, she saw one of the opticians on the shuttle bus.

“Where’s your partner in crime?” Liz asked amiably.

“Oh, we met up with a few of my old co-workers at a bar last night. She got pretty drunk,” the optician said, chuckling. “She’s still out cold; I left her in the room.”

“Oh boy,” Liz tried to hide her frustration.

That evening, Liz waited for her team as planned but by 7:40pm she sent a group text asking for an ETA.

“I forgot!” wrote the technicians. “We’re at the big optometry party – come here!” “We have drink tickets!”

“We’re too tired,” texted one optician. No reply from the other.

Liz called the restaurant to cancel their reservation, and backed off the group for the remainder of the trip.

At Dr. Bennigan’s staff meeting the presentations were of varying quality: one of the technicians did an adequate job, but the other had clearly not taken any notes during her classes. The two opticians confessed to missing several classes and largely worked off the handout binders.

Dr. Bennigan held the four back for a recap. “Ladies,” he began, “Liz and I are not satisfied with your efforts—not today, and not while in Atlanta. I was OK paying you for the time you put in to your education, but you clearly have taken advantage of the situation.

I think we need to revisit the terms of this trip.”

The Big Questions

  • Would it be fair of Dr. Bennigan to subtract from an employee’s daily rate for each missed course?
  • Should the team be held accountable for missing team-building events? How?
  • If Dr. Bennigan decides to send staff next year, what should he do differently?
Becky M.
Osawatomie, KS

We have to show proof that we attended our classes. If we don’t have our schedule stamped we don’t get paid for the time in that class. The staff should not be paid for the classes they did not attend. The staff was disrespectful for not attending the dinner they were aware of ahead of time. If the doctor sends staff next year he should spell out, in writing, what is expected of staff and none of the staff that attended this year aside from Liz should be allowed to attend again. We have never had to put the expectations in writing at our practice. We have a lot of fun at conferences but we also attend our classes and take notes because we’re being paid to be there and our doctor is paying for CE. Common courtesy and respect.

Thomas W.
Myrtle Beach, SC

The doctor paid the staff to attend the classes. They did not attend, so it would be fair for him to subtract for each missed course. The team should be held accountable for missing the team-building events, but as these were clearly after hours and not during their paid work hours, there should be no financial consequences for missing these events. If the doctor decides to send staff next year — and I think he should—he should personally explain his expectations to the staff. Additionally, it would be wise for him to attend the conference along with his staff. It would also be a good idea for him to take them out to dinner as a team-building event and not as a business meeting. I would encourage keeping the team together as much as possible. The office manager zoning out in front of the TV by herself is not acceptable.

Deanna A.
Fort Collins, CO

Express your concerns and document it in their employee file. I would consider sending less people the following year and certainly not the ones who didn’t follow through. There seemed to be a lot of hand holding and trying to make sure they follow through. There needs to be some point of responsibility of the employee. They go to learn and share. The partying and missing classes is abuse of the situation. Next year if they miss class, then they would be docked those hours and asked to reimburse for the cost of education.

Brian C.
Prescott Valley, AZ

We had a similar situation when I took my entire staff of five to Vegas Expo West about 20 years ago. Most of my staff did not attend the education I paid for, and were off drunk/gambling the entire time. Time dedicated to purchasing new frame lines and evaluating equipment was spent trying to find errant employees who were passed out/vomiting in their rooms after the “Marchon party.” It was a terrible experience. I was furious that I closed my clinic for three days (thousands in lost revenue), paid for the entire thing (a couple more thousand dollars), the staff’s hourly wage for three days, and I netted no positives at all. It was a complete waste of time and money. The staff noted my resentment for years afterward, and never brought up going to Expo again. I have never paid for any employee to go to Expo since. I attend it alone, sober, and only for one day.

Chris D.
Tampa, FL

I would not touch the employees’ pay for the trip. But not having filled the agreed requirements, I would suspend them for three days for gross negligence of their duties. This was not vacation; this was work and education. The expectations were set. They failed to deliver — three of them, at least. I would bar them for one year for any company paid events or education. I wouldn’t rub their noses in it, but set the tone to know it will never be tolerated again. And why.

Cherlyn F.
Decatur, IL

Speaking as an office manager, I would write up the employees who did not participate according to the agenda. I would also forbid them from any future trips for a period of time, say one to five years. Our policy on continuing education: Continuing education and the expenses involved will be left to the discretion of management. There may be times when you will be required to attend a seminar scheduled after office hours, or on a Saturday or Sunday. The doctors will pay your registration fee, and you will be reimbursed hourly pay for time spent in classes and for two hours for exhibit hall time. No reimbursement for travel expenses will be considered.

Pamela M.
Highland, CA

1. Would it be fair of Dr. Bennigan to subtract from an employee’s daily rate for each missed course? ABSOLUTELY.
2. Should the team be held accountable? YES.
3. No further out of area continuing education except for the staff person who adhered to the rules. No exceptions for staff members who took advantage of their employer and office manager. The staff, despite the rules, took this as a vacation at the employer’s expense. Shame on the employees. This breach of trust has now created an office problem and will remain as part of the employees’ records. Trust will have to be earned back, if that is possible, and it is up to the doctor and the office manager.

Taylor K.
Ellington, CT

1. Yes, it would be appropriate to subtract the daily rate for missed courses. The staff was being paid for the hours they were attending the conference/expo, so why would they be paid for not going? Especially considering typically you pay per credit hour, so not only would the staff be paid to not be working, they were wasting money for attendance fees.
2. While it is frustrating the team didn’t attend, if they weren’t being paid for that time, there isn’t much to do for this specific issue, unless staff was told it is mandatory.
3. I would call a meeting with the doctor and the attending staff and express disappointment with what transpired. I would then explain that I will not be considering any staff members who missed courses for the next education trip. In the future, having very clear expectations of the staff will be essential.

Judy C.
Wilkes-Barre, PA

Yes, the doctor should hold the staff members accountable. Rather than docking their pay, it should be considered during their annual review process and the costs reflected in any resultant pay increase. I also believe there should be a written agreement between the doctor and any staff members attending a conference stipulating what will be required during the event. I would hope that any staff members offered this opportunity would jump at the chance. I know I would have.

Pam P.
Downers Grove, IL

It’s disappointing when a staff member does not value an opportunity like this! However, without expectations set prior to the trip, I don’t know that it would be fair to not pay for something promised. Spelling out expectations and letting staff select classes that might interest them, or covering CE requirements if they are certified, would give staff the ability to decide if they could meet the doctor’s expectations. Additionally, it should have been noted that any missed classes/days/activities that are required (and most likely already paid for) would result in a reduction of any reimbursement or pay. Working together as a team to cover any aspects of the meeting the doctor needed information about would have benefited all. But the girls all missing the meeting Liz had asked them to attend at the end of the first day could have derailed plans for the following days and was blatantly disrespectful to Liz. Action might be considered in that respect. The staff acted irresponsibly.

Martha D.
Wheatfield, IN

I definitely think he should subtract some of the hours for the ones who didn’t attend their classes. They didn’t live up to their part of the bargain. If he does send anyone next time, I would draw up paperwork specifically letting them know what is expected of them and what is expected of the doctor and have everyone sign. That way, when they come back afterwards and the doctor goes over the conference with them, all parties will be held accountable. If I was the doctor, I would have been really upset with my staff; they were chosen to go and all they did was play around.

Dennis I.
Monroe, CT

The doctor should have laid out all expectations and consequences prior to the meeting. This way, if someone didn’t fulfill their duty, there would be no questions regarding consequences. The staff manager should not only have made sure the staff met for an appropriate meeting, but also allowed for free time. Because the doctor and manager did not lay out their expectations, the only consequence should be that the individuals do not qualify for another trip.

Rigo L.
Indio, CA

This is funny, and at the same time sad but true. The staff should be held accountable for this. There is no reason why the doctor has to pay/lose for their staff to party. The staff should be ashamed, but I understand how things got out of hand. I give props to the manager for not trying to babysit her staff. I would subtract their pay — they would understand why. They need to understand that this is not acceptable. If they get bonuses, I would consider skipping them or cutting them significantly. I would also consider a write-up as well. As for the following year, I would still send staff but not those same staff ever again. There is no room for immature staff.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. eyecare business serving the public, you’re invited to join the INVISION Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting eyecare professionals. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

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Real Deal

Ever Feel Like Your Billing Policy Is Backfiring?

This practice does. How can it get back on track?

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IN FOCUS VISION CARE, a private practice in Olive Branch, MS, was adding a new billing manager to the office. Sean had four years of experience submitting optometry claims and 12 years billing for a physical therapist; this would be his first position as a supervisor. Erin was office manager and spent a lot of time training Sean during his first few weeks. After lunch on his third day, Erin brought Sean to the conference table and spread out several documents.

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 info@meredithoptical.com

“I’ve delayed going over Medicare but I think it’s time,” Erin began. “We made a decision that doesn’t really seem to be panning out for us, so you and I need to work with the doctors to edit our protocol.”

Sean was intrigued. “I’ve always known Medicare to be straight-forward. What’s happening?”

Erin pulled one of the documents toward Sean: an EHR-generated pie chart. “As I mentioned earlier, 44% of our comprehensive exams in the last five years have been Medicare exams. Eighteen months ago we saw a major increase in Replacement plans.”

Sean nodded. “Right, patients on Medicare can buy a hardware benefit. I’ve seen this advertised on television.”

“Well, the plans these patients pay for also include a well-visit.”

“The doctor I used to work for always sent the exam to Medicare. I understand these plans to be for optometrists to ‘identify – don’t treat.’ Elderly patients usually have a medical diagnosis and require actual care.”

“I agree with you. Their comprehensive exams are, on average, too complex to bill to these kinds of plans — not to mention the significant difference in reimbursement!”

“So what’s the issue?” Sean asked.

“Several patients complained, first to our doctors and then to me, that they wanted to use the services they had purchased. Most of the patients I spoke to were in their early 60s and relatively new to Medicare. One patient even went to our local newspaper and got a reporter involved. ‘Potentially deceptive practices.’ We were pushed into the spotlight.” She sighed, pulling the newspaper clipping out of the pile towards Sean. “We did what we thought was best at the time: the doctors only do a refraction and the minimum level required for the Replacement plan, delay all patient counseling and education, then schedule a comprehensive visit using Medicare for a few weeks later.”

Sean nodded. “That sounds reasonable. The patient uses both plans and I imagine at the second exam you skip the refraction and only collect the 20% co-insurance?”

“Yes, but the problem is most patients are no-showing to those exams, or canceling last minute and never rescheduling. We’re now seeing these initial patients pass the 12-month mark and call to book again. One doctor believes as long as we document carefully and have a signed consent that each patient understands the difference between the well-visit and a comprehensive exam, it’s the patient’s right to select their level of care. The other doctor told me she plans to refuse well-visits for patients who skipped their Medicare-level exams last year, because she doesn’t think a piece of paper will protect us from the consequences of subpar health care.”

Sean drummed his fingers on the table. “I think I need to do a little research before bringing my professional recommendation to the doctors,” he said.

The Big Questions

  • How would you have solved this dilemma if it was your practice criticized in a newspaper?
  • If your parent/grandparent was a patient at this practice and wanted to use a Medicare Replacement plan, which doctor would you side with?
  • Would your own protocol be affected if your Medicare base was only 10%? How about 80%?

Real Deal Responses

John M.Victoria, TX

I recommend the practice stop participating in the Medicare advantage plan and see patients that have regular Medicare.

Nina C.North Chesterfield, VA

This is hard. I would like to do the wellness on the vision plan, but Medicare patients have more complex ocular situations than most. We have a large Medicare group. Most will not return for the Medicare exam and liability is such that I cannot give a “lesser vision exam.” We tell patients when making the appointment and again on checking in that we are Medicare providers and will be filing Medicare. We will be collecting refraction fees unless the patient has a vision plan that coordinates benefits to cover refraction. We can use their material benefit towards glasses or CLs. Those who disagree never make an appointment or leave. If the optometrist was to forsake filing Medicare, we would soon be dropped as physician providers.

Rigo L.Indio, CA

Newspaper! Who reads a newspaper nowadays? Anyways, it could have been worse with social media or TV. Patients with Medicare usually require extra time and visits and they think Medicare works the same everywhere. I have seen offices take Replacement plans with Medicare only if they have a vision insurance plan and refer out for medical exam or not take Medicare at all if it’s a Replacement plan. Well visits don’t do much for a patient and most of the time they need comprehensive exams or medical during an office visit. That being said, I would change protocol for the Medicare patients to only see them for comprehensive or office visits. I make that clear when the appointment is made. Having a good relationship with MDs and co-managing patients works best.

Maureen G.Oak Park, IL

I see the problem as one of a lack of educating the patient. Our office sees maybe 10 percent Medicare patients, but the doctor takes time to explain so the patient understands the importance of the medical visit. We have few if any patients that do not schedule a medical visit. And it has to be the doctors doing the explaining, not a manager or technician. Patients will listen to a doctor more than anyone else.

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Real Deal

A Sublease Eye Doc Didn’t Work Out

Should the optician/owner pursue their non-compete?

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ROXANNE WAS AT HER desk on a Sunday afternoon reviewing bills and rubbing at stress hives on her neck. The optician-owner of a gorgeous boutique near Sioux Falls, Roxanne was at her wits’ end with her sub-leaser, Dr. King. The women had a meeting scheduled to try to resolve their differences.

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 info@meredithoptical.com

The pair met the previous year at a CE event and hit it off. Dr. King, a stay-at-home parent of several years, was inspired to return to work part time, and Roxanne was inspired to offer eye exams to her loyal client base. They created a two-year contract including a non-compete clause limiting Dr. King from practicing within 3 miles of her office within a year of contract termination, on penalty of several thousand dollars. Once the commitment was made, Roxanne retrofitted storage space into an exam lane and purchased second-hand equipment.

Roxanne, waiting impatiently, now ran through the details in her mind to prepare for a contentious discussion. The terms of their agreement were 8-10 comprehensive exams in 4 hours for a flat rent. Patients scheduled with Dr. King directly so she could book around her family commitments. She billed and collected all exam fees, while Roxanne’s employees pretested, collected co-pays, and processed contact lens orders.

For a few months everything went well. Then the financial disagreements began: Dr. King started scheduling just 2-3 patients a day and decided it would be fair to only pay rent every second or third week. Payments on the equipment leases were now greater than the rent. Roxanne was also seeing lots of shipping charges for contact lens trial orders, which Dr. King felt were the responsibility of the business as they profited from supply sales.

The front door squeaked and a moment later Dr. King sat down at Roxanne’s desk. She looked worn but resolute. “I know you called this meeting,” she began, “but I’d like to speak first.”

Roxanne nodded and pushed her paperwork to the side. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I just don’t think this is a good fit for me,” said Dr. King. “I’m tendering my resignation, effective 2 weeks out. I don’t have any patients booked past then anyway.”

Roxanne’s eyes bugged. “You’re quitting?!” she managed to get out, throwing her head back and staring at the ceiling. “You’re quitting.”

“This just isn’t fun for me,” she continued. “I don’t like your stress towards me, and I feel like I’m being nickel-and-dimed.”

“Are you leaving to go work somewhere else?” asked Roxanne.

“No, my wife and I don’t rely on my income,” she said.

Roxanne sighed. “Well, it sounds like your mind is made up. It stinks we weren’t able to resolve things, but … I get it.” As soon as Dr. King left, Roxanne got to work posting the job vacancy online.

A few weeks after Dr. King’s last day, Roxanne’s lab tech stopped her in the hallway. “I just heard through the grapevine, Dr. King is seeing patients over at Family Vision Center,” he whispered. Exasperated, Roxanne thanked him and went to call her lawyer about enforcing the non-compete clause. Family Vision Center was less than 2 miles away!

The Big Questions

  • In what way could Roxanne and Dr. King have changed their agreement to mutually improve the situation?
  • If Dr. King bills for a contact lens fitting and the boutique bills for the supply, who pays the shipping and handling of trial lenses?
  • Is a non-compete clause justified for a sublease doctor? If the lawyer deems the contract enforceable, would you pursue?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Andy H.
Jacksboro, TN

This scenario poses a significant problem for the optician/owner. I’m not sure how I’d resolve this situation, but it could’ve been avoided if a reputable business consultant had designed the contract. A professional consultant would have covered all the disputed variables. I think it’s interesting that a recent INVISION survey showed a mere one in four ECPs use consultants, and this Real Deal demonstrates the need to do just that. We’re all pretty smart about eyes, but not many of us can claim to be experts in business.

Chris G.
Inver Grove Heights, MN

First, I didn’t see a copy of the non-compete document. Some of these documents are unenforceable depending on the laws in the state where this occurred. Second, all costs should be negotiated at the beginning of the employment. Third, even if a lawyer deems the contract enforceable, it can still be nullified by a myriad of other factors. Having said this, if all the contingencies are met in the agreement and it is enforceable, I would go after it immediately. Another part is who owns the files in the office. That should be negotiated as well.

Bill K.
Houston, Tx

Bad terms of agreement upfront. Starts bad, ends bad.
1. More concrete terms and understanding.
2. Cost of trials? Ever hear of fitting sets?
3. Non-compete should hold up if written correctly.
Not a bunch of 2-year-olds at play. Grow up and live up to your commitments. “I don’t feel like I am respected.” Blah blah blah.

Anna T.
Claremont, CA

First of all, they should have spoken more about what was expected from the lease. Possibly going through a broker to have a legal agreement prepared with terms stating that the lease was to be paid every week and that X amount of patients were expected per week. Also, they should have agreed upon the costs of the lenses, and who was paying for shipping charges in the agreement. Ultimately, I think that the doctor just did not have the right work ethic for this sort of collaboration. I think that the doctor’s fees should cover the trial shipping costs. I believe the non-compete is justified. However, since this doctor did not spend very much time working at the location, I am not sure that she would be much competition if she were to set up office in a nearby location. Most likely with her work ethic she would not be much of a business owner in the future.

Rigo L.
Indio, CA

Ohh, the drama! It’s always easier to blame the other person. Both Roxanne and Dr. King gave up too soon; communication is key. It was unprofessional for Dr. King to quit. It’s not expected but the doctor should feel heavily responsible — in this case it looks like it was all business. The shipping and other stuff could have been worked out if both were willing to keep to their agreement; at the end of the day they still made a profit. As far as pursuing the non-compete clause, it sounds exhausting, expensive and time-consuming, but if this is going to save my business, I would go ahead with it.

Darrell L.
Goodlettsville, TN

The contract should have spelled out the particulars of fees, bills and supplies. Leaving things open-ended always creates problems. The non-compete is justified and was agreed to in writing, therefore it is binding. If the tables were turned, the doctor would likely pursue reimbursement for damages from the optician.

Frank U.
Bakersfield, CA

No lawyer; lesson learned, find another doctor.

Wilfredo M.
Philadelphia, PA

Unless Roxanne and the doctor agreed to bringing another doctor to work more hours, I don’t see how. Two or three exams a day doesn’t justify the expense of equipment, or cutting the space to put in an exam room.

The optical should pay for shipping for trials, but also keep in mind that for trials at least a commitment for the sale of the contacts should be engaged, or an order for glasses should be placed — and then seen as a courtesy from the optical, not from the doctor.

Whatever is the right and legal thing to do. If the income was not the issue based on Dr. King’s answer, why work in a place that close? People should not be allowed to conduct a market study while working with you and then become your competition! Keep in mind that patients are the “property” of the doctor, who did the billing.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. eyecare business serving the public, you’re invited to join the INVISION Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting eyecare professionals. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

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