ST. LOUIS—Amid the challenges of COVID-19, some businesses found themselves so consumed with responding to these new external challenges that they overlooked the internal struggles faced by people within their own organization. EyeCare Partners, a leading network of integrated ophthalmology and optometry providers, saw this need and moved quickly to find ways to care for its own team members while they were themselves caring for ECP’s patients.

This aid followed from the creation of the Crisis Aid Relief for Employees (ECP CAREs) Foundation, which awarded grants to employees in need of financial support due to a disaster event or a personal hardship, such as extended illness. The foundation was funded by Partners Group—which acquired the majority stake in ECP in late 2019—along with ECP management, board members, staff and various others who made contributions to the foundation over its first 10 months. “We’ve helped more than 500 teams members with grants from ECP Cares,” president David Clark told Vision Monday. “A lot of this has been related to pandemic issues, but it’s not limited to that. This is something that we are particularly proud of as an organization.”

Kelly McCrann, ECP’s chief executive, said he hopes eventually all ECP team members will contribute, but already there has been sufficient funding to provide a perpetual source of aid to support ECP staff in times of need.

This was among the positive developments for ECP in what began as a challenging year. The organization reduced practice activity to mostly emergency care across the network for six to eight weeks last spring. (In addition to emergent care, ECP’s ophthalmology practices stayed open for retinal procedures throughout 2021.)

“Starting in late May and June, we brought everything back on line and we had a very solid second-half of the year,” McCrann said. Indeed, a flurry of transactions with 16 new partners since last October has brought ECP to approximately 600 sites of service across 18 states. Revenue across the organization is split roughly 50-50 between the optometry and ophthalmology sides of the group.

Clark added, “Our teams, like a lot of organizations, were faced with just an amazing amount of change overnight. They did a great job responding to that …. and making sure that we took care of our patients the way that they needed to be cared for.”

McCrann said he believes there were a couple factors that led to the rush of transactions at the end of 2020, including the COVID-19 impact and interest in the outcome of the presidential election. The overall conditions of COVID were not easy for businesses to manage through, which led some doctors to start leaning more heavily into the option of finding a business and capital partner, he said. The other factor related to the perception that a new administration in Washington would change the capital gains’ rates.

As a result, ECP remained very active in its development activities throughout 2020, and closed on 28 transactions over the course of the full year. The organization now has over 700 doctors across its organization.

Business Highlights of 2020
Among the two dozen transactions ECP completed in 2020 was the acquisition of Blue Sky Vision, a management services group formed in 2017 through a partnership between Grand Rapids Ophthalmology and PE firm Sterling Partners. About a dozen practices, mainly in Michigan, comprised Blue Sky Vision.

“We’re very excited to have them on board, and it’s a great organization with great practices,” Clark said. “The integration process has gone really well with them, and we were very pleased to move that one forward.” Many of the executives within Blue Sky have now become key members of the ECP team, McCrann said. “This is expressly part of our strategy that when we add good practices, not only do we get good doctors and good clinical performance, but we also get good teammates,” he added. “We continue to upgrade the team regularly by virtue of the fact that when we affiliate with a new large group, we get new, fresh talent.”

The 2021 Growth Forecast
ECP headed into 2021 with a cautious view, in part because of the lingering COVID-19 issues. “We’ve budgeted the first half of the year to be mindful of that continuing reality, but we’re hopeful that by the last half of the year we’ll see a return to normalcy,” McCrann said. He said expectations on the transaction side are consistent with last year.

ECP sees a healthy pipeline of opportunities in both the optometry and ophthalmology sectors. The priority is to build out the vertically integrated network in existing markets, but it’s “very realistic to assume that we will find attractive practices in new geographies, as well,” McCrann said.