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Rice tightens billing, collection processes

WILLMAR -- Give consumers the option of paying their hospital bill online via credit card, and they'll jump at the chance.

That was Rice Memorial Hospital's experience after introducing an online credit-card payment option last June. During the first six months, the percentage of bill payments made this way rose from 7.9 percent to 23.5 percent.

It's one of the ways the city-owned hospital has been trying to streamline its billing and collection procedures to make them more efficient.

Hospital staff gave members of the hospital board's finance committee an overview Friday of what's being done to maximize the revenue stream in an increasingly demanding financial environment.

Part of this effort is aimed at consumers to help make it easier, and more likely, for them to pay their bill.

For instance, a new care pricing tool will be introduced this year to give patients an estimate of what their hospital stay or their procedure is likely to cost.

"It will eliminate a lot of the surprise for the patient so they don't get sticker shock when they see the bill," said Jackie Hinderks, reimbursement and reporting manager at Rice Hospital.

When patients receive their estimate during the pre-registration process, they also can begin discussing payment options with the hospital's business office. If they're eligible for a discount or a grant, they can start the application process.

Hospital officials hope that by working up front with patients, their bills will be more likely to be paid promptly and in full.

The effort appears to be helping. Hinderks said the total of accounts receivable that were more than 120 days old fell from $3.9 million in 2008 to $2.5 million last year.

While bad debt at Rice has risen compared to five years ago, it remains less than 2 percent of overall operating revenue and below that of the industry average.

The hospital's business office also has become more aggressive about managing claims before they're submitted to insurance.

New software was installed last August to help catch errors and discrepancies in coding and billing before the bills are sent out. Hinderks said it has cut in half the number of insurance denials due to incorrect coding. In some cases, the turnaround time for getting paid by an insurer has been lowered to four to six days.

Efficiencies in billing and collection matter to the hospital because when bills are slow to be sent out or patients don't pay their bill, it erodes the hospital's bottom line. By keeping a close rein this past year on accounts receivable, Rice saw its cash position grow stronger, said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital.

"We've built up our reserves and our investments," he said. "The overall goal is to make sure we're doing an efficient job at collecting on our accounts and building our balance sheets."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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