Tech Talk: Is it time for an automated bill pay system?

Traditional paper statements and calls have been increasingly ineffective.

Physicians take care of patients, but someone needs to help take care of physicians—ideally, by making their practices run more smoothly. One avenue to accomplish this goal is via a straightforward, cost-effective way of getting accounts receivables paid. With many independent physician practices bowing under the weight of unpaid bills, healthcare practices need more options; traditional methods of sending repeated paper statements and/or staff calling patients have been ineffective.

Given the economic landscape, lower cost health plans–or, High Deductible Health Plans–are surging in popularity. As insurers pay less under these plans, more of the total bill falls to patients, who are carrying substantially higher balances now than in the past ten years. Following the math, with thousands of patients in the healthcare system, the portion of the accounts receivable paid by the patient compared to the portion reimbursed by the insurance companies is rapidly escalating.

One such billing firm meeting the challenge head-on is Pembroke Pines, Florida-based Professional Reimbursement Managers, Inc. (PRM).With no hope in the rearview mirror, PRM looked forward, reaching for an automated statement, in the form of a pre-recorded phone call, for their medical billing programs. They needed new options for contacting patients with outstanding balances in a cost-effective manner.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that a polite human-recorded phone call can be three-to-five times more effective than a paper statement. And while such a call can be significantly less costly than an extra paper statement or a manual phone call, this option does require that the patient has given prior consent to receiving an automated call.

For PRM, using an automated billing system with an embedded HIPAA-secure web portal where the file can be safely uploaded has made all the difference. Not only are they seeing a flood of patient payments, but they are finding that the automated calls are up to 75% less costly for the billing firm compared to sending an extra paper statement or having staff pick up the phone and call manually. They are thus able to reallocate their staff, who no longer need to struggle to reach a mere portion of the patients with unpaid bills. Now, with automated billing calls, the practice can reach 100% of all patients with outstanding balances.

Establishing an automated billing reminder call system is the opposite of complex, involving only three simple steps.

  1. Run an “A/R Aging Report” or “Patient Accounts Receivable” report, ensuring to include the phone number on the report. Many times, this is a standard report in patient financial systems.
  2. Select a company that provides outbound billing reminder calls and does not charge an additional fee to handle your file format. Ideally, the company will offer a free trial period and will not require a long-term commitment.
  3. Collaborate with the vendor to write HIPAA-compliant billing reminder calling scripts, trainstaff, start sending out calls, and receive the call results reports displaying which patients were reached. Well-established vendors know how to “error proof” or customize billing reminder call using rules such as: “Skip over any patient with an outstanding balance, a balance less than $5.00, or a credit balance” ; “Skip over any patient who was billed less than 10 days ago”; and “Send a different message for a patient that is more than 120 days late.” Experienced vendors will provide not only phone call capability, but a text messaging option as well.

A robust automated billing reminder calling system also features detailed results of the phone/text reminders, (i.e., who answered, who was transferred to the billing office to make a payment, who answered and hung up after 10 seconds, who received a voicemail message, who was unreachable after 4 tries over 45 minutes, etc). This information is vital for training, eliminating incorrect phone numbers from your patient database, and quality improvement purposes.

As the healthcare industry evolves, customer needs shift. An ideal automated bill pay vendor tracks or closely follows these needs. For example, patients often prefer texting, –a communication style that benefits billing departments because they can include an “easy pay” link in the message.

There is also a growing trend toward switching a phone call conversation to a secure text chat conversation between billing staff and patients. From a staffing perspective, this is exceedingly cost-effective as one staff member can attend three or more text conversations at a time…as opposed to only one phone call.

The old saying, “Follow the money” applies here as well. If you can’t follow the trends in patient needs and in the healthcare environment, you won’t find the money.

About the Author
Martin Trautschold is CEO of 1-800 Notify, a healthcare communications firm that is fully HIPAA and PCI compliant, an Epic App Orchard Partner and integrates with many systems. 1-800 Notify reduces no-shows and boosts collections by supporting millions of inbound Payment IVR (Interactive Voice Response) phone calls, patient balance due reminders, two-way appointment reminders, and patient wellness and broadcast messages.