Two hospital trade groups are urging their members to take basic steps such as extended billing office hours, simplified managed-care contracts and the use of plain English to make it easier for patients to pay bills.
The groups also plan to initiate a blue-ribbon commission on patient-friendly billing that would include hospitals, physicians, private and governmental payers, and consumers.
The suggestions for hospitals are part of a progress report being issued this week by a patient-friendly billing task force that the American Hospital Association and the Healthcare Financial Management Association established last year. Modern Healthcare received an advance copy of the report, which is being sent to hospitals nationwide.
Last year, AHA President Richard Davidson said hospital bills are the industry's "biggest PR problem." In a statement to members this month, he said the report is a "first step in a long-term initiative" and called on hospitals to change their own institutions and advocate reform by government and commercial payers.
Industry leaders also believe hospitals would benefit financially if patients could pay bills more promptly and with fewer hassles. The report cites Greenwich (Conn.) Hospital, which had fewer complaints, less bad debt and a decline in accounts receivable when it improved its billing process.
The task force of health system and medical group representatives, consultants, members of provider trade groups and a representative of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services set out last fall to revamp billing systems. It planned to focus on outside forces such as regulatory barriers that complicate the billing process. But HFMA President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Clarke, who became chairman of the task force in September, said the group decided hospitals first need to get their own houses in order. "Quite frankly, what we found was there are a lot of things hospitals can do to be more customer focused," he said.
William Jessee, M.D., president and CEO of the Medical Group Management Association, which has a representative on the task force, called the report "a huge step in the right direction." He said the MGMA is looking at adopting the report's suggestions for medical groups.
Signs abound that simple billing could become the next big craze. The task force report will be supplemented by a new Web site, www.patientfriendlybilling.org, expected to be operational in December. It will contain information, including case studies, on how hospitals can make the billing process easier.
Clarke said the next step will be to establish a series of new task forces early next year to address specific issues, such as developing patient-education programs and better defining clean claims for managed-care contracts. Provider groups are already working on efforts to simplify Medicare cost reporting, another key area for billing, he said.
The task force is expected to disband in a few weeks. Clarke said the HFMA would like to see the creation of a blue-ribbon commission by the end of 2002 to develop a long-term vision, such as melding all patient financial data in a single statement.
Several groups expressed a willingness to participate. Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Health Plans, said the commission is "a very good goal. There's only so much one stakeholder in the industry can accomplish."
But John Luchok, a spokesman for the Health Insurance Association of America, cautioned that a major overhaul of existing systems might add administrative costs.