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Rice Hospital ends year with a profit

WILLMAR -- Even in an economy that worsened sharply for hospitals last year, Rice Memorial Hospital managed to end 2008 with $200,000 in net income.

Preliminary financial figures were shared Friday with the finance committee of the hospital board of directors. The official audit is scheduled to be presented in April.

The margin wasn't as high as hospital officials had hoped, but it represented a million-dollar turnaround in just a few months. The hospital would have lost money if it hadn't been for $3 million worth of budget cuts last August and September. The cutbacks included eliminating 13 jobs and ending two outpatient chronic disease management programs.

"We are feeling very positive about what a turnaround we were able to make in the fourth quarter," said Bill Fenske, chief financial officer. "Hospitals around the state and really around the country are really getting hit. It's a very hard time for hospitals right now."

Rice Hospital was among the first wave of Minnesota hospitals to be forced to slash from its budget, Fenske noted.

"Hopefully we've solidified our foundation," he said.

One phenomenon that's recently emerged: It's taking longer -- well over two months -- for the hospital to get paid, both by the third-party payers and by patients.

As high-deductible health plans become more prevalent, many people are seeing a steep rise in their out-of-pocket payments, Fenske said. "People are just slower in paying their bills."

The number of people who skip out on their hospital bill has not gone up, however, and in fact Rice Hospital is writing off less to bad debt, he said.

The hospital is taking steps to speed up the amount of time for getting paid.

A firm was recently hired to help collect on older balances so that the business office staff can focus more attention on current billing, Fenske said.

There will also be more emphasis on sending clean claims to third-party payers, a measure that should help cut back on having to resubmit a bill.

The hospital also plans to acquire a software artificial intelligence to help identify claims that contain special issues or secondary insurance.