Never-ending costs: When resolved medical bills keep popping up

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In response to questions from KHN, McLeod Health determined the bill the Rybaks received was a mistake.

“Unfortunately our software system regenerated this statement due to a technical issue,” wrote spokesperson Jumana Swindler. “We are checking to ensure that it has not happened to any other patients and we are sorry this family was impacted by the error.”

A week after KHN’s inquiry, the Rybaks received a letter from the hospital explaining and apologizing for the error.

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Many medical billing cases like this “boil down to human error,” said Michael Corbett, director of healthcare consulting for LBMC, a Tennessee-based firm that consults with health systems nationally on issues like billing and revenue. “Facilities don’t have a lack of tools [to avoid this]. It’s a breakdown in their processes.”

A billing agent may forget to mark the account as paid, he said. Or the hospital might contract its billing to an outside company and fail to inform them that this bill was covered under the hospital’s financial assistance program.

As hospitals and medical practices increasingly consolidate under large health systems, the chances for errors increase. Even hospitals and clinics within the same system may have different backend software, and within each hospital there can be separate programs for billing and electronic health records, Corbett explained.

Larger health systems may also have more people processing any given bill. If responsibilities are not clearly defined, multiple employees could unknowingly act on the same patient account.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated potential errors, Corbett said. New medical billing employees may have received quick, virtual training and are working remotely with little interaction with team members or oversight. Some billing departments are understaffed, leading to delays in patients receiving bills or follow-up notices, he added.

To curb mistakes, Corbett said, hospitals need to invest in more comprehensive training and supervision for billing employees; enact consistent processes for anything from how patients’ financial information is collected at registration to when they’re sent bills; and, perhaps most important, track whether those processes are being followed.

For patients who find themselves in a situation like the Rybak family’s, Corbett advises calling the hospital billing department and asking to speak with a senior leader in its revenue cycle division. Unlike an account representative, this person could make decisions, Corbett said.

At the end of the conversation, ask to get the explanation in writing, he added.

“You’d anticipate and hope those notes are being recorded,” Corbett said, but that may not be the case. Or notes might get recorded in a section of hospital files that are excluded from a patient’s legal medical record, making it difficult for patients to access later.

For Suzanne Rybak, the idea of calling McLeod Health to straighten out yet another bill was too much. Instead, she added the statement to a binder of paperwork, in which she’s documented all her billing struggles with McLeod Health over the past two years.

Still, out of sight hardly means out of mind. The binder sits in her craft room, where she remembers Jameson encouraging her as she made beach bags and other items. He’d say to use “fruity colors,” Suzanne recalled — his way of describing tropical colors. Now she makes candles in that room, focusing on tropical fragrances she knows Jameson would have loved.

“I want hospitals to realize that you’re not just sending this bill to an address,” Suzanne said. “There are people who live in that house, who are going to open that mail and have feelings. … It’s a disaster to bring all that up again.”

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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