NEW YORK—Top executives from regional and national healthcare systems joined the third Virtual VM Summit broadcast on October 14 to share how administrators, clinicians and support staff have responded to the global coronavirus pandemic, which has stressed hospital and provider systems in unprecedented ways. Citing resilience, adaptation and teamwork as key ingredients to meet the challenge, these business leaders discussed how they see insurance coverage and patient access to care evolving with these shifts, and how systemic changes in healthcare will provide an opportunity for vision care providers to chart a new direction and play a wider role.

The Summit program, held October 14, was the third in the four-part virtual series "AFTERSHOCKS: Remaking Healthcare's Future, Vision Beyond 2020," the VM Summit's major theme. The series began Sept. 30 and runs through Oct. 21. The full program, registration details and speakers' information are posted here.

Summit 'Attendees' Have OnDemand Access to Sessions, Presentations and More

Those attendees who registered for the Summit will have full access to the Vision Monday Summit virtual platform, networking and messaging lounge, and exclusive access to Summit attendee-only content. Registered attendees will have access to OnDemand for all sessions through Dec. 31, 2020. This platform also enables registrants OnDemand access to a special Resource Center that contains some of the speakers' presentations, as well as supplemental content and speaker details.

Attendees can also visit the sponsor gallery, where you can view a variety of important tools and messages from the Summit’s  generous sponsors.

The full program and full speakers' information are posted here.

Charting a New Direction

Marge Axelrad
Marge Axelrad, SVP and editorial director of Vision Monday opened the third session broadcast, setting the stage beyond vision’s borders for a macro-level look at enduring lessons from 2020 including how large health systems have grappled with the ongoing pandemic, marshalling teams and resources to serve the needs of patients and providers. Summit attendees then heard about a refreshed approach to delivering vision care benefits, learned how an integrated MD/OD approach serves a broad range of eyecare needs, and parsed the role of “business in community” in a discussion on corporate social responsibility.

Repairing a ‘Fragmented Mess’ and Creating a Remarkable Experience: The Blended Health Strategy
Highmark, Inc. is one of the country's largest integrated healthcare systems, operating a hospital system with thousands of clinicians and patients, and one of the largest Blue Cross Blue Shield systems in the country. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Highmark is regionally-focused in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, with customers in 50 states and the District of Columbia. David Holmberg, president and CEO, described Highmark Health as a "national blended health organization" which is more, he explained, than payors and providers working together. He said, "We seek to integrate our cost structures and functions and unify our strategies, incentives and action plans, pooling our resources, data and capital in the best way to ensure clinical value."

David Holmberg

David Holmberg (l) and John Whyte, MD

He noted, "Despite what we've all been going through, we need to keep our eyes on our true north. We're in a unique position. We believe in the blended healthcare strategy which seeks to change how healthcare interacts with its various constituents. It's not just integrating cost structures, but being able to pool capital and resources to create better, more affordable and successful outcomes."

Holmberg remarked, "Let's face it, the healthcare system as we've come to know it is broken. We have a system built for caring for people once they're sick, but hasn't historically looked at what we're facing now which is the rise of chronic conditions, most of which can be addressed in new ways. In the healthcare space we are starting to see companies come in, without a history, and start to do things differently. We believe a real, new focus can be on both the clinicians and the patients, and maybe redesign the system to fit this new focus."

Holmberg, overseeing one of the largest Blue Cross groups in the U.S., also has a high-profile role as the current chair of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and noted that the group is advocating for protecting stability in healthcare benefits for Americans, ensuring access to widespread testing and vaccines for COVID-19 and promoting health equity for all.

An informative Q&A session followed, with WebMD’s chief medical officer Dr. John Whyte. When asked about the opportunities for vision care professionals in this new climate of care, Holmberg, who formerly oversaw a large retail group and managed vision care business, stated, "We have a cost issue and a quality and impact issue in healthcare, and the optical industry can play an important role here. We've got to get everyone practicing at the top of their licenses— therapeutics, being on medical panels for various insurance companies, and truly becoming another access point where eye doctors can do more than just provide refractive lenses, but also engage in people’s overall health."

Courage, Creativity and Character: Lessons Learned from the Front Lines

Andrew Karp

Michael Dowling (l) and John Whyte, MD

Andrew Karp, Jobson’s group editor, lenses & technology, then introduced one of healthcare’s most influential voices, Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. As New York State's largest health system and private employer, Northwell has cared for more COVID-19 patients than any other provider in the nation. In an exclusive interview with WebMD’s Dr. John Whyte, Dowling shared lessons learned while leading from the epicenter of the pandemic, along with his views on the future of healthcare.

Looking back on their experience with the pandemic, Dowling said Northwell “had treated over 76,000 COVID patients, 17,000 of them in Northwell’s hospitals throughout New York State. Today, we only have 80 COVID patients in our facilities so we are relatively COVID free and we are starting to see the rest of our business coming back.”

When asked by Dr. Whyte what surprised him most about the pandemic, Dowling said “not knowing how to treat the virus clinically” was especially frustrating. “We were learning everyday about the virus—using what we did yesterday to change the treatment for tomorrow.”

The uncertainty of not knowing how long the pandemic would last “and how it would affect our hospital capacity” only added to the stress of the situation. But the biggest “positive surprise” for Dowling was “the courage, creativity, innovation and dedication of our staff. Many of them worked straight through for 24 hours. Many healthcare workers got sick and then came back to work after being quarantined.” Dowling said he always knew how dedicated the staff was but in looking back at their efforts, “I am humbled by what I observed.”

COVID also demonstrated to facilities like Northwell that it was no longer possible to do “business as usual.” He said, “50 percent of our business is hospital-based and the rest consists of ambulatory care, outpatient visits and home care. Telehealth or virtual care changed all that and now the genie is out of the bottle.

“We were doing a lot of telehealth before COVID. But the staff was still hesitant about telehealth, asking will this work and will it be effective.” Today, the use of telehealth at Northwell facilities has only increased. “We are maximizing the use of telehealth by engaging with patients before appointments, and making use of wearables and other tracking devices. It is providing us with a dramatic mode of delivery of care."

COVID also highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary medical practices. “Staff from different specialties came together as a team to fight COVID. Our culture at Northwell is a team-based approach. We will continue to accelerate the interdisciplinary training and coaching. We need to unify around a common purpose, which is the health of the community and the holistic care of the patients, just like we did during the pandemic. This will gives us dramatic advantages going forward as we move away from silo-based care,” Dowling said.

Dr. Whyte also referenced Dowling’s new book, “Leading Through a Pandemic,” and asked if the pandemic has changed us forever. Dowling said that the pandemic has “humbled” us and changed the way we think about life. “We have been through a war, but I think we’re better off having gone through this because it demonstrated what we can do,” he said.

Dr. Whyte also quoted from Dowlings 13 steps to prepare for current and future threats where Dowling stated, “We need to reverse America’s cultural disrespect for science.” Dowling elaborated on the theme and said we need to make better investments in organizations such as the CDC, the NIH and in public health in general. “I was delighted to see that recently the pharma companies came out with a statement that said when it comes to vaccine development they will focus on science and positive outcomes and that they won’t short-circuit the vaccine process.”

Vision’s Role in the Healthcare System: How a Major Health Payor is Viewing the Future
Next, VM’s Marge Axelrad returned to introduce two highly-regarded executives overseeing specialty benefits at UnitedHealthcare, the largest healthcare company in the world, who discussed the range of UHC’s approach to vision; how the group has pivoted through COVID; and their view of the “future of vision's opportunity in the healthcare space.”

Addressing leadership from the “front line,” especially as it related to the pandemic, UnitedHealthcare Vision’s John Ryan and Lori Archer addressed the impact of COVID-19 on managed vision care and their company’s plans for adapting and moving forward. UnitedHealthcare Vision serves over 20 million people enrolled in employer-sponsored, individual, private label and Medicare and Medicaid plans.

John Ryan

Lori Archer

Ryan, general manager of UnitedHealthcare Vision, said the firm wants to build upon the ideas borne out of the pandemic, which includes its efforts to focus on its people, take care of its business, and apply common sense to everything. “We’re moving that forward, not just as a response to the pandemic but rather as what you can expect from us as we continue to find the best ways to work with the industry and to take care of consumers together.”

Ryan also noted that he believes moving forward industry principals have to “recognize that we all need to continue to work with managed care. You may have opinions about it, you may like it or you may not, but it is growing, folks. As a result of the economy and everything that’s going on, we will see more people coming into government programs, both from aging into Medicare as well as the economic challenges that will move people into Medicaid.”

The eyecare industry should “be there collectively” for patients and take responsibility for helping people with their eyecare and their total health care, he added.

The pace of consumers thinking differently about how they access their health care is only going to increase, Ryan said. “They want to limit the number of interactions, they want much less friction in how they seek and get service, and how they buy materials. We are focused on that in some of the partnerships that you’ve seen and that you will continue to hear about.”

He also noted that UnitedHealthcare Vision is hoping for a lot of future partnerships with industry players. “The pandemic has created an opportunity to advance our entire industry, and we think it should be seized… We are going to continue at UnitedHealthcare Vision to focus on the total health care of the individual that we serve.”

Lori Archer, chief operating officer of UnitedHealthcare Vision
, recapped the road to recovery the managed vision care company has experienced over the eight months of the pandemic and its expectations. Archer, who joined UnitedHealthcare in 1997, has responsibilities for strategy development and execution, network growth and strategy, quality and clinical performance and general operations across commercial, Medicare and Medicaid lines of business.

The bottom of the market for eyecare “really fell out in April, and that was a time when pretty much everything was closed up and we were all in our homes,” she said during her Summit presentation. But by May the utilization rates started to recover, she said, and the uptick continued through June, July and August. “I would say now that we’re very close to our ‘normal’ in terms of utilization across our commercial business [while] government has been just a little bit behind; close, but not quite there.”

Looking ahead, Archer said that everything UnitedHealthcare Vision has identified as its key priorities centers around a few things: the consumer experience, access to care and eye health and wellness. “Those are at the core of what we are focused on,” she said.

She added, “What we understand is that we really need to embrace technology, whether it’s telehealth, or whether it’s AI technology. It’s really about meeting consumers where they are.”

Archer also noted that UnitedHealthcare Vision has partnerships with Warby Parker and, more recently, and pointed to the 2nd Blue Light Summit, a collab with EyeSafe and other consumer electronics company partners.

“We’re going to continue to really focus on expanding that non-traditional access to care. That’s one of the trends that we saw happening before the pandemic and, if anything, I think the pandemic has really expedited that trend.”

Vision Voices: Patience and Kindness Go a Long Way
For the Summit’s Vision Voices section, attendees heard from Inder P. Singal, MD, medical director of Bennett & Bloom Eye Centers which has seven offices in Kentucky and employs 18 doctors. Founded by Dr. Donald Bennett in 1987, Bennett & Bloom is a patient-centric practice, with a focus on patient care and coordinating with referring optometrists.

Indar P. Singal, MD

Dr. Singal took an in-depth look at how Bennett & Bloom has managed to survive and begin to thrive in the face of COVID-19. He explained how things are different for the patient, from waiting in their cars to COVID screenings and temperature checks, and how things have changed for the staff as well, from social distancing to constant sanitizing. In all, Dr. Singal said, they’ve learned that “patience, kindness and understanding go a long way,” and that many patients are scared to leave their homes and only do so to attend doctors’ appointments. Knowing that, the team works extra hard to make sure patients feel safe in the office, and know that they are following CDC and health department guidelines.

Moving forward, Dr. Singal said he believes the virtual waiting room is here to stay. In addition, he said the Bennett & Bloom teams believe that the extra cleaning precautions they’ve adopted due to the pandemic should become standard practice. However, Dr. Singal said he doesn’t necessarily believe that telehealth, as we’re using it right now, will be the solution for eyecare, at least not in the immediate future, due to job security, opportunities for innovation and disruption as well as the need to brainstorm ideas to get paid for the extra work it requires.

Dr. Singal also emphasized the importance of integration, sharing how over three million pairs of eyes a year are entering the aging group. With 24,000 ophthalmologists in the country and no rise in residency spots, as well as geographical distribution inequalities, vertical integration is more important than ever.

Warby Parker: Corporate Social Responsibility and Giving Back to the Community

A surprise and last minute addition to the Summit program was Neil Blumenthal, co-CEO of Warby Parker. In a conversation with VM’s Axelrad, Blumenthal discussed the role of leadership and corporate social responsibility in our current world.

Regarding Warby Parker’s approach to the pandemic, Blumenthal said, “whenever you’re in the middle of a crisis, leaders need to take bold and decisive action.” In March, the company closed all of its stores to protect employees and customers. Since then, Warby has hired an epidemiologist and reopened all its stores safely. This, Blumenthal said, “required a lot of communication and education of our team to make them feel safe and comfortable.”

Marge Axelrad (l) and Neil Blumenthal

Neil Blumenthal

In addition, Warby’s lab was closed for just one day. During that day, the lab was deep cleaned and rearranged to ensure social distancing. Since then, Warby Parker has seen double digit increases in its e-commerce business due to the pandemic and closures of its (and other) optical stores, and these increases have been sustained.

Blumenthal also discussed how Warby has seen “an acceleration of existing trends,” where many customers are coming to the store or exam chair prepared—having done the research and taken advantage of Warby’s virtual try-on system. This has resulted in a rise in the company’s conversion rates, and more customers who come in knowing exactly what they want. In part, Blumenthal thinks, this might be due to customers wanting to move quickly because “the longer you’re indoors somewhere, the more risk a consumer is taking.”

Axelrad and Blumenthal also discussed Warby’s sense of corporate social responsibility, including the company’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, which pivoted during the beginning of the pandemic to help provide PPE to those on the front lines. In addition, the company has recently taken steps to promote more diversity and inclusion initiatives, which has included publishing a more robust racial equity strategy, partnering with New England College of Optometry to provide scholarships to Black optometry students, and partnering with Black Eyecare Perspective on career fairs at HBCUs across the country.

Warby Parker has also taken steps to encourage both employees and customers to vote, including providing employees with paid time off to vote and volunteer as poll workers in the upcoming election. Blumenthal said, “We believe that businesses are part of a community and should give back.”

The Vision Monday Global Leadership Summit is sponsored by Platinum Sponsors: Essilor, Luxottica and VSP Global. Gold sponsors are CareCredit, Ocuco, Think About Your Eyes and The Vision Council. The Silver Sponsor is Alcon.