by Paul J. Disser

CEO, Spectrum Vision Systems
Overland Park, Kansas

Spread the word. There’s a new generation that is progressive, forward-thinking, and inquisitive about millennium benefits. The age-old “what’s in it for me?” query, while still–as it always will be–at the top of the list of concerns among insurers, agents and brokers, is now often quickly followed by yet another question:

“What other innovations can you come up with that we can offer?” In answer, there’s now an exclusive offering, in the form of a significant additional benefit to the vision care field, that definitely represents a positive answer to what many industry marketers and their clients and prospects have increasingly requested in recent year…specifically, the addition of eye laser surgery–and its thoroughly modern techniques-to the benefits package.

This elective procedure, representing voluntary surgery, is being offered at discounts of 10 to 25 percent from the usual and customary fee structure and through PPOs that include networks of independent ophthalmologists. The addition of laser surgical techniques, in the news frequently in recent years, will mean not only vastly improved eyesight for many, but the newfound ability to discard eyewear, whether glasses or contact lenses, entirely!

This represents a medical breakthrough of significant proportions. More than 150 million Americans wear corrective lenses; that’s nearly half of the U.S. population! The addition of laser surgery to the benefits package finally answers the requests of many, partly because there haven’t been many innovations in the vision care field for the past five years.

No product or service, no matter how attractive and popular, can afford to remain stagnate. Anything good can always be improved upon. Through extensive research, coupled with needed marketing acumen, that is exactly what’s transpiring in the vision field.

Undoubtedly spurred in great part by a new generation that doesn’t mind-in fact, welcomes-the change issue, and thriving on new and innovative techniques and technological changes, the benefits industry is now a whole new world.

Faced with this growing realization, it behooves benefits providers and all others involved in marketing and providing products to change some of their traditional thinking, and work in unison with people with whom they may have had adversarial relationships. Doctors of optometry and MDs are getting together to work in the co-management of patient situations. Even opticians are getting involved in these relationships on a more conciliatory basis. So we’re seeing more changes across-the-board concerning not only the benefits industry and the people offering benefits, but the organizations providing the benefits.

Again, it’s a whole new world and it’s time to buckle up … it’s going to be a challenging and exciting ride into the new millennium.

Vision care as an ancillary product has been growing in popularity through the years as an enhancement and valuable add-on to the primary package being sold, whether group life or health, standard disability income, dental, long-term care, etc. According to the findings of industry surveys, vision is always near the top of the list of benefits requested by employees. It has therefore become attractive to a growing number of companies, agencies and brokerages.

It comes with no fuss, no underwriting, no risk exposure…and at a fraction of the cost associated with the typical underwritten product. Yet the profit potential of vision plans is significant relative to a typical underwritten product.

The majority of the growth within the vision care marketplace has come about through offerings of the previously mentioned PPOs and their networks of independent optometrists. Such networks provide a large volume of business, often on a nationwide basis. For 90 percent of the U.S. population, vision care network providers are no further than a 20-minute drive.

Within the vision care benefits growth scenario, discount access card plans have grown dramatically. Typically, these plans allow members to access a provider network to garner savings on frames, lenses and contacts. And, because all is predetermined–and therefore there is no insurance risk exposure element in the discount card benefit design–the cost is very low…from $6 to $12 per year per employee. Furthermore, this type of plan is easy to install and administer, thereby boosting profitability.

There are also variations of the vision care offering that allow for routine eye examinations and discounts on optical goods, as well as the latest innovation–discounts on laser surgery. These plans can be designed with employers’ budgetary considerations in mind by managing the frequency that employees can use their vision benefits. For example, employees can visit providers once every 12 or 24 months, and the level of reimbursement for exams, frames and lenses can be scheduled (e.g., $40 for exams, $30 for frames, $30 for lenses). Typically, these plans range in cost from $2 to $12 per month per employee. The initial laser surgery benefit is being structured around a traditional PPO discount formula. Ultimately, surgery benefit reimbursements will evolve just as they have for exams, frames, lenses and contacts.

Vision care coverage is not only popular, but its features and benefits are plentiful, and it is extremely low cost. Therefore, it has not only proven an excellent add-on benefit, but it can serve–and often has–as a door opener to the sale of other insurance coverages. This is often possible because, although vision care has continued to grow in popularity through the years, many small-, mid- and large-size employers have yet to offer this attractive benefit. The marketing penetration for vision is less than 35 percent in the U.S. labor force and less than 25 percent among the general population, according to surveys by such organizations as A. Foster Higgins and Associates. So the market is definitely there.

It’s a market that includes businesses of all sizes, municipalities, various ancillary groups and countless associations. All represent new sales and revenue opportunities within a receptive and ever-growing marketplace.

The companies that continue to succeed in the vision care marketplace are inevitably the same ones that have found the right match in network development and maintenance, internal operating systems and procedures, marketing and fulfillment materials, and top-notch customer service. And that means they’ve found the right PPO.

Every step of the way along the marketing trail, such successful companies continue to stress to their agencies and brokerages that, after the sale is made, all the servicing is handled by the PPO … a fact that, with certainty, is “music to the ears” of agents and brokers.

And now, with the extremely valuable addition of laser surgery to the benefits package, even more doors–some which may have been considered closed–can be opened by those with the marketing savvy to offer vision care.

Paul J. Disser is chairman, CEO and president of Spectrum Vision Systems, Inc., Overland Park, KS, a managed care vision care company and PPO servicing over 20,000 companies and 4 million subscribers througlwut the United States, Puerto Rico and the LJ .S. Virgin Islands.