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John D. Thomas, chief of editorial operations
Thomas

Check, please

Bill me now for services rendered so I can avoid payment hassles later


By John D. Thomas
Posted: October 6, 2012 - 12:01 am ET
Tags:

My wife and I recently celebrated our third wedding anniversary. As a treat, my wife's mom offered to watch our 5-month-old son so we could have a night away. And although we were nervous about being away from him for the first time, it was great knowing that he was being well taken care of.

To celebrate, we drove to Milwaukee from Chicago and stayed at a hotel we had been dying to visit. We also ate in the hotel's fancy steakhouse, which was quite amazing, if pricier than we expected. The next morning, we went back to the same restaurant and had an even more extravagant brunch, which set us back $30 each—the most we have ever paid for breakfast.

When we checked out and paid the bill, it was a bit more than we had budgeted for, and I knew that when I got home I would have to look at what we had set aside for the trip and make sure I kept our personal books balanced.

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In June, I had a very different kind of experience paying for services rendered. On June 6, I went to have my annual physical. I paid a $15 copay, but I also had blood work done, and when I walked out of the office, I had no idea how much I was going to be obligated to pay for those tests. I used my online health insurance site to monitor how those blood test bills were updated. My plan ended up being billed $1,130 for the lab work. The plan negotiated a discount of $647.49 (how they arrived at that figure, I have no idea), and my plan paid $386.01. That left me to foot a bill of $96.50. My appointment was more than four months ago. I have yet to receive the bill. To figure out what was going on with the delay, I called my insurance carrier. They said that all they do is negotiate the price of the bill. To find out why I had not received it in more than four months, I had to contact the billing department at the hospital where the lab work was done. They gave me the number and actually transferred me to the hospital's billing department. I was put on hold, and after several long minutes of annoying background music, a rather bland recorded voice came on the line and explained that call volumes were unusually high and that I would need to leave a message and that someone would get back to me within 24 hours with an answer to my question. Not the answer I was looking for. The point of this story is to underscore the need for the healthcare industry to make sure that, while concentrating on their own efficiency and quality issues in the wake of healthcare reform, if they don't help consumers also increase their efficiencies in the process they are missing a terrific opportunity to positively impact their cash flow. In short, a healthcare consumer who has to wait around for months to pay a bill is much more likely to have issues meeting and managing their obligations. Why can't the process work more like my anniversary trip to Milwaukee? We checked in, we enjoyed the services, we checked out, we received a bill and we paid a bill. If that process actually existed in healthcare, patients would be able to understand, prepare for and pay their bills much more proactively. It's sort of like the financial equivalent of preventive medicine. If a patient gets a bill in a timely fashion, it's more likely the bill can be paid in a timely fashion, money goes into the hospital's bank account more quickly, the accounts receivable department gets a boost, and it reduces the possibility that a dreaded bottom-line killing collection agency ever has to get involved. If a person's own healthcare issues can deteriorate quickly without the proper timely medical attention, then the same can also be said to be true about a person's financial condition. Modern Healthcare is working on a story addressing this issue, and if your healthcare business has ideas about how to implement solutions along those lines, we would love to hear about them. Please send me any feedback you have to jthomas@modernhealthcare.com.

John D.Thomas
Chief of Editorial Operations



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