Like most folks, I am spending a lot more time online these days, scrolling through my Facebook feeds looking at dog and cat videos, trying to escape the 24-hour COVID-19 news cycle. The other day, I came across a friend’s post and she was complaining about her doctor’s office. Typically, I would just ignore it and keep scrolling, but this particular post caught my attention.

Patients and Providers are on Edge During COVID-19

To make a long story short, she was complaining about her Doctor’s office calling to collect a balance owed on a previous visit. Her reaction to the call caught me off guard. She was flabbergasted that the office was calling and asking for payment, especially in this financial climate. She explained that she was a small business owner feeling the pinch of the pandemic and just doing what she could to stay in business. She felt the whole conversation was rude and insensitive and ended the post with a “What the heck is insurance for anyway?” Her post set off a slew of comments agreeing with her – “How dare they,” “read the room,” “no class.”

Why am I telling you this story? I’m not telling this to out my friend. Instead, I think it highlights two important issues that independent practices are struggling with:

  1. Doctor’s offices are small businesses too and need patient revenue to stay in business
  2. Patients still don’t understand what their insurance plan does and doesn’t cover.

Independent Practices are Small Businesses

When a patient thinks about their gastroenterologist or pediatrician, they don’t view your practices as small businesses. They view it as the place they go to get healthier. Very little time is dedicated to thinking about the rent you must pay, the staff you need to support, or the bills you need to settle to cover your overhead. The reality is you have that and much more to keep your practice open and patient payments are a critical piece for survival.

How do you get your patients to understand you are a business in addition to their trusted healthcare provider? Compassion and education.

Medical Bills Can Be Compassionately Collected

Jim Turner, Vice President of Business Development at Easy Pay (an eMDs partner), recently published a blog post called  “Compassionately Collecting Patient Balances After A Crisis.” He offers some great advice on how to approach collections with your patients.

Active listening can be your best ally right now. When you call your patients to ask for payment, give them the opportunity to explain what’s going on. Jim recommends asking some leading questions like “How are you managing with the social isolation?” Everyone’s situation is going to be different, particularly right now. Some patients may be out of work and trying to balance all the incoming bills. Your bill may be at the bottom of that list. Others may still be working but are now working from home and dealing with a new set of responsibilities such as homeschooling kids, dealing with spouses also working from home, or caring for animals. Your bill may simply be lost in the shuffle.

As you are empathizing with your patient, it’s important not to lose site of the goal. Ask them directly about their bill. Do they have it? Do they have any questions about it? Can you take payment over the phone?  Some patients may not be able to pay the whole bill right away. Be flexible. Offer payment plan options that fit their needs. Some money coming into the practice is better than none. With credit card on file services, you can set up a plan that auto deducts payments on a set schedule.

Patients Don’t Understand Insurance and How it Works

One of the fastest growing payers for practices right now are patients. The rise of High Deductible Health Plans (HDHP) has led to a move away from comprehensive, low or no-deductible health coverage to plans that offer more freedom and less monthly cost, but ultimately more financial burden on patients when it comes time to use them. The average annual deductible for an individual with a HDHP was $2,500 in 2019. For family plans it was $4,800.

Because patients will be paying much higher out-of-pocket expenses, patient education regarding their benefits is critical. Arm yourself with policy information prior to the visit. When a patient calls to make an appointment, verify their insurance. This will give you time to check coverage and benefits and present the patient with a review of their benefits before or when they arrive for their appointment.

It’s also important to collect payment at the time of service. By leveraging patient cost estimation tools, you can start the payment conversation as soon as the patient arrives at the office – giving you the best chance at collecting outstanding balances.

When you cannot estimate the deductible, sending out statements is a must. Getting used to sending out statements on a monthly, bimonthly, or even weekly basis is necessary and should be considered standard operating procedure. Sending statements electronically will make it even easier for your patients to pay and will help in lowering your overhead expenses.

Offer online bill pay options. Electronic payments are convenient and easy for your patients and in most cases preferred.

Finally, set up a payment plan for larger balances or for patients that are suffering financially. You can set a payment plan for any amount and any time frame, then automatically collect payments with card on file services.

This transparency and flexibility will help prevent surprises with your patient and avoid comments like “What the heck is insurance for anyway?”

The author, Allison Jones, is the Director of Marketing at eMDs.