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The Case of the
Online Poachers

An order is canceled after the insurance company steals the work. How must the office react?

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SECOND LOOK OPTICS, a well-established optometry practice near Iowa City, IA, offers a lot to patients. The optical displays over a thousand frames, the doctors accept all regional insurance plans, and their schedule includes evening and weekend appointments. Late one Saturday, optical manager Zack was paired with new patient, Bonnie, who was on a mission to find the perfect frame.

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]

“I really like the Warby Parker look,” Bonnie explained. “Roundish, nerdy, and preferably clear with a hint of gold or silver. Do you have that?”

Zack knew there was an older Kala frame somewhere in a yellowish crystal, and after searching a few drawers in the dispensary he found it. Bonnie put them on and faced Zack.

“So, I don’t think this is a flattering color on you,” he said. “Also, the keyhole style doesn’t really fit your bridge.”

Bonnie looked in the mirror and grimaced.

“Can I pull a few frames together for you to try?” he asked.

“Yes! I almost bought something like that online … I’m so glad I didn’t,” she said.

Zack quickly assembled a set of four disparate frames and after half an hour of deliberation Bonnie selected one quite different from her original intention. She and Zack then carefully went through the math to determine if her vision benefit should be applied first to her contact lenses or the eyewear. Bonnie hadn’t had new glasses in six years and was struggling to accept the frame and lens prices, even with the discounts. Eventually everything was settled; Zack entered the orders and collected her co-pays.

The following Monday afternoon Bonnie called to speak with Zack about canceling her order.

“I sent you an email; did you read it?” she began.

Zack found the message, time-stamped 20 minutes earlier. It was a forwarded e-mail from her vision benefit plan, encouraging her to purchase her glasses through their internet portal. It was sent late Saturday evening.

“I’ve been on the phone with them, and their prices are much more reasonable than yours,” she continued. “I don’t really understand why you didn’t mention this was an option available to me? I made it clear I really need the most affordable pair possible.”

Zack was unsure of what to say, but Bonnie seemed to genuinely expect him to explain himself.

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“Well, of course you are not obligated to fill your eyeglasses prescription from the same office as your exam services,” he finally replied. “However, I have already submitted your order to the lab and the work has begun.” Zack held back a key detail: the practice had a strict no-returns policy.

“I called my insurance and they just told me to call and cancel the order, that they would approve it,” Bonnie replied. “I have the lady’s name I talked to, if you need it.”

“Okay, I’ll call and then ask our bookkeeper to mail you a refund in the form of a check,” said Zack.

“Hang on, I also got an email yesterday from a contact lens website. They said I was eligible to try their new brand of contact lenses — which they sell for less than what I paid at your office — and if I did I’d get a $50 gift card to Amazon. So I need a refund on the contact lens order as well.”

“Your contact lens brand is chosen by the doctor, you’d need to come in for a follow-up exam if you want to change brands,” explained Zack.

“I don’t think so,” Bonnie said skeptically. “They already processed my order. I even have a tracking number.”

Zack assured Bonnie the bookkeeper would be in touch and hurried her off the phone to find the bookkeeper.

The Big Questions

  • Second Look Optics has a no-refunds policy. Should the policy always be overridden by vision plans or is there a middle ground?
  • What can Bonnie’s doctor do regarding her use of mystery contact lenses?
  • Now that Zack is aware these emails are being sent to patients, should his department treat patients with that insurance plan any differently?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Mina K.
Brooklyn, NY

No refund policy should stand. Customer dissatisfaction can always be solved with a redo, exchange, store credit, etc. The doctor should educate the patient that trying inferior contacts is not appropriate for her wear schedule and detrimental/risky to her ocular health. The recommended contacts are the best and can be made more affordable by buying in volume and with rebates. Zack needs to affirm that his services/care rendered are valuable, and personal attention is unmatched by anything bought online by any service or insurance company. This goes for any customer, regardless of insurance.

Kenneth P.
Oklahoma City, OK

Definitely a no-win situation for Second Look Optics. If you don’t give her a refund you look like a jerk, even with the no-refunds policy, but if you give the refund you are losing money because the lab already started the job and potentially will not no-charge the lenses. (Depends on the insurance company and lab, of course.) Since this is a new patient do you risk the blowback from an angry patient and the potential social media lashing? Do you take the time to call the insurance company and say what the heck? Do you explain to the patient that the insurance company is using inferior products to what you are selling hence the price difference? Make very detailed notes that the patient is ordering non-prescribed contact lenses from an online vendor. If the emails are standard policy, there is a need to consider whether to stay with that insurance company, but always try to educate the patient that buying elsewhere means inferior quality for their eyes.

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Leonard H.
Downers Grove, IL

Move to the medical model of eyecare, use the terminology of optometric physican, refer to your practice as an eye clinic, write contact lenses as a prescription and stop trying to sell boxes of contacts, explain up front to patients “your glasses order is being placed as we speak, we will cover any and all issues with our prescription for you for 45 days. We know you will be happy with our eye exam and our optical expertise.” Face it fellow OD’s, we are being attacked from all sides. The old way is gone.

Rigo L.
Indio, CA

I have seen this issue before in slightly different ways and the end result should be in my opinion the same; the office should not take a loss because of the patient finding a “better deal.” An easy way to avoid most of these issues is to always have the patients sign the office policy on returns/refunds. Policies should be included in new patient forms and should be scanned or saved. I have seen policies from no refunds to a 50 percent refund to restocking fees. In an office where the doctors go out of their way to care for patients and open late and on weekends, there is no room for patients that are trying to find “the most affordable pair;” in that case go to chain stores or the other cheap places — some take insurances. Zack should have been firmer with their “no refund” policy. The contacts should have been verified with the doctor before any changes. Not all patients are like Bonnie, so I would keep an eye out with that insurance.

Cory O.
Key West, FL

The vision plan scheme is a zero-sum game for private practices. If you care about the quality of care you provide for your patients, and also want to turn a profit, then you cannot participate in any vision plan. Every day there is another layer of absurdity added to the process by the vision plan companies. This fictional article was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the day-to-day confusion and problems that arise. Best advice that I have is to discontinue all vision plans or do lots of meditation and double the dose of your blood pressure meds.

Judith W.
Orange, CA

Our policy is displayed throughout our office and printed on all receipts. All sales are final and non-refundable. We have had this happen to us and informed that patient that since the lenses were already in process that we could not cancel the order without charging their credit card for the lenses, since we would have to pay for them. The few times that patients have wanted to change the parameters of the contact lenses to match their wallet we have insisted that they come in for a refit. We explain that their eyes will react differently to each lens material and curve/diameter design and must verify that they will not react adversely to the lens, causing permanent damage. If the patient is not willing to come for the refit, then we will not approve the change and only confirm for what was prescribed. Since this has happened to our office, we do not pull authorization till the day of service and submit immediately once the patient has left.

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Richard K.
Castle Rock, CO

I would write a letter to the insurance company explaining my feelings regarding them stealing my customers and ask to be removed from their network. I know that this reduces exams, but if enough ECPs do this, they may get the message. Unfortunately, it may just be around the corner that the insurance companies offer online refractions and cut out the ECP altogether. Otherwise, a clearly posted significant restocking fee retained on all canceled orders might help. As far as the patient getting different contacts than prescribed by the doctor, I’d at least check the state law and bring it to the attention of the state Attorney General’s office, as well as the FTC.

Martha D.
Wheatfield, IN

Maybe they can match the price her insurance is giving for a new pair of glasses. Match what she would be getting from them and discuss with Bonnie the differences.
Make a note in her chart and do not give her a prescription for the new contacts. Let her know if she decides to not see the doctor; it is on her, not the doctor for the contacts.
Maybe call the insurance company in the future when dealing with someone who carries that plan.

AJ S.
Houston, TX

I think it might be time to think about a class action lawsuit against the insurance companies that have this practice. Multilevel practices are destroying independent optical practices. Essilor and China are using the lack of control conditions to hurt rather than help our quality of care. Millennials think that computers can do everything, but they lack the human touch and so will the new generation of future adults. Time, patience, knowledge and personal communication should still matter in any medical situation. Eyecare and eyewear must be important and not be a computer program that is handled through greedy insurance companies that worry about the bottom line rather the human experience.

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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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