Hospitals find a friendlier way to collect unpaid bills

New technologies give patients more control over their payments

Hospitals and providers are turning to more "patient friendly" approaches to collect patient debts, Beth Kutscher reports for Modern Healthcare.

Background

Although millions of U.S. resident have gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act, many providers are reporting an uptick in bad debt.

According to Modern Healthcare, the seeming contradiction likely is a result of the growing number of individuals who have high-deductible plans. Four Seasons Healthcare Consultants CEO Betty Smith says an average patient spends one year reaching the deductible; in the meantime, patients incur smaller bills that they must pay out of pocket.

Kinder collections

Some vendors, such as CarePayment and ClearBalance, seek to make it easier and less confusing for patients to pay bills. For example, CarePayment gives patients with medical debt two years to pay and does not charge interest. The companies say their practices have helped hospitals collect as much as possible.

Companies take a new approach to big hospital bills: Refusing to pay.

Meanwhile, technology has helped give patients more control over their health bills, according to Modern Healthcare. For example, Simplee's PayMyBill allows patients to view and pay bills electronically.

Physician practices also have adopted protocols that make treatment for minor ailments more affordable, particularly to patients who have not met their deductibles. For example, several practices allow a patient to see a nurse practitioner or physician assistant for a minor ailment and pay a lower rate. Also, some practices are allowing patients to use telehealth services and pay a small fee to consult a nurse practitioner about a minor ailment.

Timing

The firms have said they follow the Healthcare Financial Management Association's Patient Friendly Billing guidelines. The guidelines, issued in October 2013, recommend including advocates—such as family members—in billing discussions and providing financial assistance program information with patient discharge paperwork.

In addition, the "patient friendly" practices come amid increased scrutiny from federal and state regulators. For example, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson (D) fined Accretive Health $2.5 million and temporarily blocked the company from doing business in the state over its collection practices (Kutscher, Modern Healthcare, 5/16 [subscription required]).

The takeaway: Providers are taking various steps to make bill collection more friendly and manageable for patients.

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