How One Ophthalmology Group Finally Got Its Optical Dispensaries Under Control

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TOMS RIVER, N.J.—Where does a six-location ophthalmological group turn after spending 25 years being unsatisfied with the three different management companies that have handled its optical dispensaries over the years? In the case of Ocean Eye Institute, the answer was Vision Associates.

Over the course of the past 25 years, Ocean Eye had tried both managing its optical dispensaries on its own and hiring management groups to take on the responsibility. Neither seemed to work. Neil Robinson, MD, one of the group's principals, described managing it themselves as "like adding another business to the business" and "more than we could do." The three different optical management companies the ophthalmological group tried over the years also proved inefficient. "None to my satisfaction," said Dr. Robinson.

Now, he describes the new situation as a "stress free environment in which we're making more than we made before." Approaching two years with Vision Associates, the doctor group's optical revenues are up by a third. "The first year we broke even. Then we got the kinks out and covered some expenditures. Now, in our second year at seven months, our gross is up 30 percent," Dr. Robinson told dba.

With Vision Associates, he has observed some basic changes compared to how things used to be. "First, they normalized the pricing structure for the socioeconomic levels and the people in the area of New Jersey that we're in," he said. Before, patients would leave and not come back because the optical prices were too high. "We had enough sales before, and profits were still up, but we lost patient volume because prices were much too high and patients didn't come back. Even though our prices are easily 10 to 20 percent lower now, our volume is up tremendously."

Dr. Robinson continued, "The second thing they did was offer better service with far fewer re-dos as a result of lab error. They're also more consistent with the turnaround time for delivering glasses. It's generally three to four business days as opposed to the last group, which was three to four business days...or sometimes three to four weeks," he added. "Vision Associates is user friendly to the ophthalmologist and patient positive with great customer sensitivity."

Staffing with Vision Associates has proven effective as well. "The opticians are friendly, much higher quality than we've ever had," said Dr. Robinson. "The amazing thing is that with all the groups that have worked in our shop the turnover was huge. We'd need a new optician every four to six months. Now, we've had no turnover in a year and a half."

Dr. Robinson had known Kurt Behrle, one of the founders and principals of Vision Associates, both through the optical industry as well as socially, so he didn't have to look far when he finally decided to give them the opportunity to run his group's optical dispensaries. The partnership is structured with Ocean Eye Institute retaining ownership while splitting a percentage of gross revenue with Vision Associates, which hires and manages the opticians while also administering the frame boards. Dr. Robinson couldn't be more pleased with this arrangement. "Our opticians became their employees, and they decide which frames to stock," he told dba, explaining that his group can be involved as much or as little as they want. "They confer with us on everything. We give them information, and they act upon it."

Vision Associates was founded by current business partners and co-principals Joseph Casorio and Kurt Behrle in 1993. Behrle became a licensed optician in 1983 before launching and expanding a successful business venture in optical retailing. Casorio began his optical career in 1971, also as a licensed optician, before serving as president of a group of optical retail stores in New Jersey. He later established the Casorio Buying Group, an optical cooperative allowing practices to purchase larger quantities of optical inventory at lower prices. Seeing a void in the eyecare market for in-practice optical dispensary management, the two teamed up to establish Vision Associates, beginning with just four clients. The company grew steadily and, in 2002, its optical laboratory facility was acquired by Essilor Labs of America. Today, Vision Associates manages over 65 ophthalmology dispensaries nationwide. Casorio said that many ophthalmology practices treat their optical departments with a "gift shop mentality," so he helps them transition to a dispensary attitude. "They have to take a vested interest," he told dba.

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