Planning to be a patient at Rice Memorial Hospital in the near future? Starting Dec. 1, patients will be required to pay part of their bill before leaving the hospital.
A new software tool also is being introduced, giving patients an accurate estimate ahead of time for how much their care will cost and how much they'll owe out of pocket.
Hospital officials say the changes should help reduce the sticker shock that accompanies the arrival of the bill, and make it easier for patients to plan how they'll pay for their hospital care.
Not incidentally, it's also expected to help the hospital collect a greater share on bills that are owed.
"Whatever we can do on the front end helps with the process," said Mike Schramm, chief executive of the city-owned hospital. "It significantly improves cash flow."
The policy and procedure changes were formally approved this past week by the hospital board of directors.
Hospital staff have been getting "more and more calls" from patients who want to know ahead of time what their bill is likely to be, said Jackie Hinderks, the hospital's director of revenue and reimbursement.
"What we've been working on in the past year is finding out how we can be more transparent," she said. "It's great customer service,"
It has traditionally been difficult for consumers to obtain prices for health care services, said Bill Fenske, chief financial officer at Rice.
"People just come in and they have no idea what it costs them. You don't get that anywhere else," he said.
He and Hinderks said consumers sometimes don't even know what their insurance covers -- or doesn't cover -- until they receive the bill.
"It's amazing the stress it puts on people, not knowing," Fenske said. "What we're trying to do is help the patient."
The software tool, called CarePricer, has already been used a few times, Hinderks said. As word has gotten out about the service, the response has been encouraging, she said. "It's really been positive thus far in the community."
Hospital officials believe it'll help ease the implementation of the other major change in the hospital's collections procedure: asking patients to pay at least a portion of their outstanding bill at the time of service. As an incentive, prompt-pay discounts will be offered to those who pay off the balance within a specified time frame.
The majority of patients at Rice will be affected, Fenske said. "Very few patients are 100 percent covered."
The new policy cracks down on patients who already owe bills that are classified as bad debt or have gone to a collection agency. Although care won't be denied in an emergency, these patients will be asked to pay off their balance before receiving services, Hinderks said.
If care needs to be delayed while the patient comes up with the money, the patient's doctor will have the final say in determining how urgent it is for the patient to be in the hospital, she said. "Our goal is never to not do a procedure. It's just working together."
Increasingly, hospital officials are finding that outstanding balances -- typically deductibles, co-pays or coinsurance -- end up as bad debt after insurance has paid its share of the bill. Patients "just don't pay it," Fenske said.
Studies have found that when patients can receive an estimate up front for the cost of their care, they're more likely to pay, Hinderks said. Hospitals also are more likely to receive at least partial payment when they collect at the time of service, she said.
Moreover, it helps connect patients and families with financial counseling earlier in the process, so they can begin to apply for assistance for which they might be eligible.
"It gets the ball rolling a lot quicker on some of our programs," Hinderks said.
Some patients and families will more than likely be unhappy with the new requirements, but the policy changes were needed, Schramm said. "It's what hospitals across the country are doing and we need to do that too."