SBDC Advisor helps Yakima optometrist realize his vision

Dr. Benjamin Winters with a young client

Dr. Benjamin Winters with a young client

YAKIMA, Wash.—Twenty/twenty vision isn’t the same as “perfect vision.” Just ask one of the millions of people who can’t stand watching a 3D movie.

In fact, says Ben Winters, a developmental optometrist and owner of Washington Vision Therapy Center in Yakima, 3D movies are a useful screening tool in diagnosing vision problems that are sometimes hidden in plain sight.

While glasses typically treat vision problems related to the shape of the eye, vision therapy is more like physical therapy for the eyes and brain, with a goal of strengthening the muscles around the eye to improve alignment and focus.

Winters was in optometry school when he first heard about vision therapy and its potential to help people with developmental vision problems. He was inspired by the lecture and immediately knew it was something he wanted to pursue. But, with an undergraduate degree in business, he also knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Selling something the public doesn’t know it needs is one problem, he said, and not being able to offer an introductory special was another.

“There was no way to break down the treatment I prescribed,” Winters said. “The kids needed what they needed, there was no way around that.” Vision therapy can take from two months to a year or more, depending on the severity of the problem. Adding to the difficulties, insurance companies have refused to cover vision therapy, or have only covered a small portion of the cost.

Though vision therapy has been around for nearly 70 years, vision therapy practices are still relatively rare and models for running a successful, sustainable practice in a mid-size community are even more rare.

“To my knowledge, no one had ever successfully started a specialized vision therapy practice in a city as small as Yakima,” Winters said.

Fully aware of the challenges, Winters began meeting with Linda Johnson, a certified business advisor with the Washington SBDC while he was still providing traditional optometry services at a superstore.

“What Linda did that was so powerful is that she had me write that vision down, expand the vision, and then make sure I was taking care of all the details that would make that vision a reality,” Winters said.

Winters and Johnson spent hours on his business plan, using orthodontia practice as a model and talking about everything from personal values to company valuation. Together they worked on billing procedures, office procedures, staffing and securing a loan for commercial office space.

With Johnson’s help, he created an advisory board of medical practitioners and business entrepreneurs to help guide the growth of his practice. His practice did grow. By 2011 he had left the superstore and by 2012 he had hired seven employees, including three full-time vision therapists. Winters had set a goal of about 120 active clients, and by mid-2013 his caseload had more than 80 clients, well ahead of his projected growth.

Though typically, insurance has not covered vision therapy at all, or only at a very small amount, in recent months that has started to change. Winters has been able to successfully submit insurance claims for many of his clients, and more changes are on the way, including possible Medicaid coverage.

With the possibility of insurance billing on the horizon, Winters went back to Johnson, and to his business plan. “Help me think this through,” he said. Private pay billing meant clients typically paid in advance, but insurance billing meant he’d have to provide the services first, and then wait for payment. Working with insurance would also require new record keeping and new billing procedures.

With better insurance coverage, he said, it should be possible for all children to get the treatment they need. Not only will more children be able to benefit from vision therapy, but Winters believes his goal of creating a sustainable business model for vision therapy clinics in midsize communities is visible on the horizon.