RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif.—The sentiment at VSP Ventures is that it’s a busy period, but it’s a good kind of busy, with ongoing efforts to help the practices now under its operating umbrella continue their recovery from COVID-19’s impact while working with prospective ODs who want to become new Ventures practices. This combination produced a busy fourth quarter for VSP Ventures, a unit of VSP Global, and expectations of an active year on the partnership front in 2021.

“Things have never been busier than they are right now,” Ventures president Tiffanie Burkhalter told Vision Monday. “But I am super pleased. It’s great to be in a phase where we are busy, and I know that not everyone has that luxury right now.”

Ventures practices have experienced a solid recovery since the low points of 2020, and are now running ahead of the most-cited practice performance trackers by, at times, a range of 10 to 17 percentage points, Burkhalter said, noting these practices overall compare very favorably to dashboards tracking the West region. “We’re certainly cautiously optimistic, and we’re seeing really great signs,” she said. “For the locations that we have acquired, we’re pretty close to [getting back to] pre-pandemic results and that’s how we have forecasted out for 2021.”

Ventures, which was formed in March 2019 as an option for ODs looking to transition their practices, finished 2020 with 23 locations in California and northern Nevada. As of mid-April, Ventures said it has added a total of 26 locations in California and Nevada. In terms of adding locations in 2021, Burkhalter said Ventures is cautiously optimistic, but that some requirements tied to PPP loans is impacting timelines. “Some of the institutions involved with PPP loan forgiveness require a lot of [reviews and approvals],” she said. “We’ve got several [practices] that are sitting on the verge of meeting the confirmation, but moving slowly. It’s been interesting navigating through this part.”

Last year’s challenges provided Ventures an opportunity to review its mission. Mainly, Burkhalter said, this is involved refocusing on all the ways Ventures works to demonstrate a “we care” philosophy. “Something we did, which I believe was a little bit different, was to make sure that we were available for essential care,” she said. “We did not furlough staff, and we kept our staff in a position to support our doctors even though in some cases it was remote or it was doing some things from home.”

Ventures also worked with the practices it had been talking to about potential partnerships during the disruption caused by the pandemic. “We did complete two acquisitions during the shutdown, and with others we had strong communication about how to navigate through these things.”

2021’s Plan for Growth, Expansion
Burkhalter said that with many independent practices now over the hurdles of reopening, navigating PPP loans and implementing new safety protocols, doctors are “back on the path of thinking about their future” and restarting conversations about potential partnerships. “We’re certainly back to the place we were [pre-pandemic] in terms of interest coming in, and the amount of time that we’re spending talking to doctors about potential partnerships,” she said. “So, we went back to our original growth plan forecast for 2021, which is pretty rapid expansion [and] moving nationally and going outside of California and Nevada, which is where we are today.” She declined to provide specific details on the growth forecast, but Ventures already has announced a few new partnerships this year.

How Partnership Discussions Have Changed

One of the residual effects of COVID-19 is seen in the way independent ODs are now viewing their future and changing the questions they have about what a prospective partner brings to the table. Financial considerations will always be in play, but now there are new questions emerging around “How will you take care of me when things go sideways?” She added, “A lot of doctors also will go ahead and call other doctors within the Ventures practices and ask about the [services offered over the] past year. This has become an increasingly important element when ODs are looking for a partner,” she said.

The VSP Global Philosophy
VSP Global remains committed to supporting the independent doctor community, Burkhalter explained, as well as making sure people have access to quality eyecare. She noted, too, that Ventures was created in response to “independent doctors asking VSP to offer an alternative exit strategy that is patient-centered, puts full-scope optometry first and that respects and preserves practice legacies often built over many decades.”

She added, “Simply put, we are focused on long-term success, not short-term profits. We are also passionate about supporting doctors early in their careers. Ventures provides doctors with a wide breadth of practical experience and skilled doctor and general business mentorship to enable professional development and growth.” n