VSP and Costco have recently launched a pilot program that allows employees of a “small number” of employers to use VSP vision benefits at any of the vision centers within the 400 or so Costco wholesale stores in the U.S.

So, how does including commercial vision centers align with VSP’s longstanding philosophy of promoting private practice?

“Offering Costco as a client exception to a small group of clients [employers] is a way to meet their needs, and be able to win business we would not have won otherwise and get the vast majority of those patients into the offices of VSP’s network doctors,” says Patrick McNeil, Public Relations and Strategy Director for VSP Global. “Our mission is to put patients in private practice, and we are offering out-of-network options that will help us to continue doing that.”

Before this pilot program, patients could already go to Costco as an out-of-network provider—VSP says this is required by law.

The difference with this new program is that Costco now has the ability to check eligibility and submit claims electronically for those patients employed by the specific group of employers.

“Reimbursement is based on the client’s Out-of-Network Schedule of Allowances,” Mr. McNeil says. “Costco cannot externally advertise any participation with VSP. Only the members of these client exceptions receive communication regarding Costco.”

VSP hopes this pilot program will be a way to retain employer clients who might otherwise switch to another, commercial-focused managed care vision plan. “Our goal is to win business away from retail-based managed vision care plans that could be sending 40% plus of the patients into retail chains, and begin to transition these patients away from retail and back into the offices of VSP’s network doctors across the country,” Mr. McNeil says.

Private practice optometry is still VSP’s main priority, he says. “VSP’s mission of driving patients into private practice doctors’ offices remains the same,” Mr. McNeil says. “Although Costco is not part of the VSP network, our pilot and relationship with Costco is designed to help us win new contracts that ultimately will mean more patients in private practice.”