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Rice Memorial Hospital renews its bill-collection policy with AG office

WILLMAR -- An agreement to abide by reasonable and civil bill-collection policies has been renewed between Rice Memorial Hospital and the Minnesota Attorney General's office.

Board members of the city-owned hospital reviewed the agreement at their meeting Wednesday. Rice is in compliance with all the provisions governing its practices on collecting unpaid hospital bills, said Bill Fenske, chief financial officer.

Some internal issues were discovered this past year with a hospital billing clerk but the problems have been re-solved, he said. "We did identify those. We did correct those."

A review also indicated that the collection agencies and law firm that help Rice with pursuing unpaid bills were following the right procedures, he said.

The attorney general's agreement with the Minnesota hospital industry has been in place since 2005. It's aimed at eliminating harassment and abusive practices against patients who owe money on their hospital bills.

It also requires hospitals to offer the same discount to uninsured patients as that offered by each hospital's most favored third-party payer.

Efficient but humane collection of what patients owe for their care is a growing issue for hospitals.

Fenske said the amount of charity care provided by Rice Hospital more than doubled in 2009. "It was a huge increase in this past year," he said.

Within the past two or three years, Rice has stepped up its efforts to identify potential charity-care patients as soon as possible, so payment arrangements can be made and these patients can be steered toward any financial help for which they might be eligible.

One such program, a matching grant that helps cover hospital bills, was implemented two years ago.

It's a one-to-one match, Fenske said. "If they make a $100 payment, we'll write off $100. If they make a $500 payment, we write off $500."

The program is available to patients who meet certain financial guidelines.

In an effort to make the process more clear and to bring it more in line with the rest of the hospital industry, some revisions in the policy were reviewed and approved Wednesday by the hospital board.

The policy now spells out that applicants for a matching grant must meet income and asset guidelines and outlines how the application procedure will be handled.

"We want to make sure we're looking at all the income sources for the debtor and we're also wanting to look at the assets, especially income-producing assets," Fenske said.

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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