The Frustrating but Promising Evolution of Patient Payments

Posted on July 5, 2013 I Written By

As Social Marketing Director at Billian, Jennifer Dennard is responsible for the continuing development and implementation of the company's social media strategies for Billian's HealthDATA and Porter Research. She is a regular contributor to a number of healthcare blogs and currently manages social marketing channels for the Health IT Leadership Summit and Technology Association of Georgia’s Health Society. You can find her on Twitter @JennDennard.

As a mother of two, and someone prone to over-preparation, I like to have an accurate idea of how much a visit to the doctor’s office will cost me. Am I looking at a $40 co-pay, $100 trip to the ER, or a flat $1,000 fee for pregnancy and delivery services? It’s easy enough to call up Aetna and ask for costs of expected doctor’s visits. It’s not so easy to understand your financial obligation when you’re uninsured and calling around to find a good price on an x-ray for a potentially broken collarbone. The few providers I spoke with to get that X-ray estimate didn’t offer a flat rate, and couldn’t even give me a ballpark figure over the phone. My type A personality was extremely frustrated.

My frustration can in no way compare to the angst the Kennett family felt when Chip, the father, fell ill with lung cancer and had to turn to raising money on Kickstarter to pay the medical bills his admittedly “good” health insurance wouldn’t cover. His wife mentions in a recent Kaiser Health News article that she was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and family who have so far donated $56,800. “We kept saying how lucky we were,” she wrote in the Team Kennett blog. “Now, just how messed up is that?”

“Messed up” is a pretty accurate description of the frustratingly hard-to-understand patient payment system that has been cobbled together by hospitals and payers over the last few decades. And I’m not even talking about the costs for care. I’m speaking strictly about the methods healthcare providers use to collect their fair share.

I came across a few vendors at the HFMA ANI show I’ve covered over the last few weeks that are trying to take a step in the right direction by offering payment collection methods tailored to patients’ lifestyles. As I told one booth rep, I’d have much rather received the text or email his company offers reminding me to pay the bill for the birth of my daughter rather than the phone call I got from the hospital just two weeks later asking for money. I think all the sleep-deprived, hormonally shell shocked new moms out there would agree that time frame is not the greatest for trying to get money out of us.

I chatted with Bird Blitch, CEO of Patientco, about the need for a more patient-friendly payment collection method after I ran into him on the show floor. Patientco, which is seeing great traction in offering hospitals a variety of payment options that allow patients to choose how they want to pay, is steadfastly working on this very problem. Blitch explained to me that one bad payment collection experience has the potential to ruin an otherwise positive patient experience for a hospital. And it seems to me that hospitals should be paying attention to that last piece of the patient visit to ensure their patients come back to their facility rather than take their business to the competitor down the street. Referrals are fast becoming a big differentiator in most hospital markets, and a bad billing experience can certainly impact word-of-mouth recommendations to friends and family.

Much is being made of the need for greater transparency into healthcare costs. I hope the industry pays just as much attention to the bill that contains those costs. It would be ideal to see them evolve hand in hand.