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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Eye surgery
patients are left
in the dark

Lasik Vision's demise leaves
about 170 awaiting refunds
or surgical care

By Tim Ruel

The abrupt closure of a discount laser eye surgery business in Honolulu has left about 170 patients awaiting surgery, refunds or post-operative care.

Two weeks ago, Lasik Vision Corp. permanently shut its office on the top floor of the 16-story Pacific Park Plaza in Kakaako. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company, founded in 1997 and now saddled with debt, is being bought out this week by a larger, publicly traded chain of laser eye centers, Toronto-based Icon Laser Eye Centers Inc.

Icon spokesman Joe Krupa said about 50 Lasik Vision patients in Hawaii still await treatment. Another 120 need postoperative consultation and possibly more surgery.

Lasik Vision patients are being referred to Icon's local office, the Pan-Pacific Laser Eye Institute, located at 1440 Kapiolani Blvd., across from Ala Moana Center. The Pan Pacific office has one ophthalmologist to handle the influx.

Lasik Vision opened its Kakaako office in August, promising discounts of up to 75 percent from standard eye surgery prices in Hawaii. In the so-called Lasik procedure, a surgeon reshapes the inner eye with the zap of a laser beam, eliminating the need for glasses or contact lenses.

The closure of the Honolulu office has left many patients frustrated and confused.

A Lasik Vision staff member, who requested anonymity, said Friday that the company has had employees show up to work as usual, direct customer calls to a toll-free number, and wait for further instructions.

Among the disgruntled customers is Kahala resident Robert Wright, who was attracted to the Kakaako office by the company's discounted prices.

The insurance salesman, who describes himself as "very nearsighted," signed up for surgery in November. To make the appointment, Wright had to put down the full $999, but he said he didn't mind. Elsewhere on the island, laser surgery on both eyes can cost up to $4,000, and besides, he said, the company's brochure promised a full refund if he opted out after an initial consultation.

A couple weeks before the appointment, Wright said he became concerned when he learned that Lasik Vision's surgeon had only recently completed his medical residency and training. He called Lasik Vision's toll-free number to cancel, and a representative said Wright would get the money back by late January.

To this day, Wright hasn't seen any of the money.

Wright said he called Lasik Vision twice in January and was told both times that the company had financial difficulties but was about to pay up.

The pending purchase of Lasik Vision still leaves consumers in the dark. Icon has not yet assumed the liabilities of Lasik Vision, meaning it is not refunding any deposits, Krupa said. It is unclear whether Icon would pay back deposits once it buys Lasik Vision, since the purchase agreement has not been finalized, Krupa said.

"Unbelievable," Wright said. "I think I just ate the thousand dollars."

For those who have paid the deposit and want to go forward with either surgery or post-operative correction, Pan-Pacific will waive the cost for any procedures promised by Lasik Vision, but charge additional fees for work not covered by Lasik Vision's package deal for Hawaii, Krupa said.

Milad Estivan, marketing director for Pan-Pacific, acknowledged that many Lasik Vision customers have been upset with the sudden change.

He said Pan-Pacific just started calling Lasik Vision patients after retrieving its appointment calendar on Friday.

"The Lasik Vision offices and employees should have had a system to get ahold of these people," he said.

Anne Deschene, president of the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii, said her office has urgently been trying to contact Lasik Vision's corporate headquarters about consumer concerns, but has had no luck so far.

Shortly after he canceled his Lasik Vision appointment, Wright said he went to Oahu ophthalmologist John Olkowski and paid $4,000 for surgery on both eyes. The surgery went smoothly, Wright said.

Wright said the money isn't the main issue for him.

"It's the principle of the thing. Promises were made by a large company and weren't kept," he said.

But money is an issue for other Lasik Vision patients.

Will Waters, a Honolulu resident who has worn glasses since he was 5 years old, said Lasik Vision's price was appealing, so he signed up to have surgery in January.

On the day of the operation, however, Lasik Vision introduced Waters to a surgeon who had just been hired by the company.

Waters said he felt anxious about trusting someone he didn't know, but went forward with the surgery anyway.

"I would never recommend anybody to do what I did," Waters said yesterday.

He now calls his decision "cavalier" and said he made it just to get the low price. "I don't make much money," he said. "Even $1,000 was a lot for me."

Waters said he was pleased with the surgery's results but has since noticed problems with his night vision. "It's like I have a cheap camera," he said.

Waters won't go to Pan-Pacific to get it fixed, however. He said he wants to wait until the surgery becomes an exact science.

Currently about 5 percent of Lasik procedures require follow-up correction. Waters said he is willing to wear disposable glasses for now.

Olkowski, the ophthalmologist who did Wright's surgery, said consumers must do their homework. "Research, and go visit the center," he said.

Another Honolulu ophthalmologist, Tyrie Jenkins, said patients have much more to consider than the price.

"My problem with Lasik Vision is they basically made eye surgery a commodity, making price an important thing as opposed to surgical experience," Jenkins said.

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