Industry Voices—5 ways to show a compassionate approach to patient financing during COVID-19

The financial shock of a COVID-19 diagnosis is a top-of-mind concern for 54% of Americans, who fear not only the medical expenses associated with treatment but also the impact of loss of income during recovery.

It’s just one sign of the need to strengthen the patient financial experience during and after the coronavirus pandemic—even in organizations that pride themselves on taking a patient-centric approach.

Prior to COVID-19, a consumer survey showed 40% of consumers weren’t sure how they would pay an unexpected medical expense under $500, and 60% said an unexpected medical bill of less than $1,000 would spark worry.

RELATED: Industry Voices—6 ways hospitals can show financial care for patients during COVID-19

Now, in an uncertain economic environment, a new survey shows 51% of consumers are concerned about how they will pay for medical care of any type this year. The survey also shows 60% of consumers are concerned about losing their job, and 67% believe the pandemic will affect their income.

As a result, healthcare revenue cycle leaders must consider:

  • How will consumers approach medical expenses during and after the pandemic—especially if their employment is affected?
  • What resources are needed to support consumers in navigating medical expenses, including expenses that aren’t related to the coronavirus?

There are a number of strategies hospitals should explore to help ease the financial stress of medical payments during and after the outbreak. 

Engage patients early and compassionately around out-of-pocket costs of care. With the exception of baby boomers, consumers across generations fear they will lose their jobs in the current economic environment, from 61% of Gen Xers to 65% of millennials and 70% of Gen Zers.

That’s why it’s critical that employees capture patients’ preferred method for communication at the point of registration and engage patients early around their out-of-pocket costs of care.

Financial services staff should then use these methods to initiate discussions soon after the encounter, focusing on:

  1. Screening for financial assistance. Hospitals may wish to revisit their financial assistance policies to extend charity care or discounts to individuals who have recently experienced loss of employment. Sixty percent of consumers fear they will lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic, while 67% expect a loss of income. Meanwhile, 40% are very or somewhat concerned they will lose their insurance due to the economic fallout from COVID-19.
  2. Sharing estimated out-of-pocket costs. The financial data that are most important to consumers are the out-of-pocket amounts they will owe after insurance has paid its portion or, for the uninsured, the discounted rates after screening for assistance. Especially during a time of economic uncertainty, communicating this amount soon after the encounter will relieve the financial stress of care. It could also lead to quicker payment, since patients typically are willing to work with providers to settle their accounts when they sense that providers wish to assist them during this process.
  3. Offering a variety of payment options. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 52% of consumers surveyed said it was important that healthcare providers offer financing plans or payment options that are flexible to their needs. Today, flexible payment options are imperative: One analysis shows 47 million people could lose their jobs due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Although no-interest payment plans are attractive, not all patients can afford the monthly payments associated with these types of plans. Consider adding an alternative plan with lower monthly payments that a consumer could switch to if the need arises while assuring consumers that terms can be reviewed if financial circumstances change. If your organization outsources its payment plans, make sure the partner you have selected accepts all patients, with no negative outcomes such as credit reporting. This increases patient satisfaction and loyalty.
  4. Keeping an eye out for account delinquencies—and reaching out quickly. When patients who entered into payment plans prior to the COVID-19 outbreak suddenly stop paying on their account, it’s important to engage these patients right away to ask why. For example, has the individual experienced loss of income or a sudden rise in expenses? Or, has a fear of the unknown prompted the patient to put medical expenses on the back burner? Once the financial services representative knows the answer, an informed, highly empathetic conversation can take place. Perhaps the terms of the payment plan can be adjusted, or a payment temporarily delayed to offset the pressures of medical debt. Elimination of late fees for consumers dealing with economic turmoil is another vital step. Now may also be a time to take another look at the organization’s policy for sending accounts to collections. Some organizations are considering extending their policy by 90 days, offering the gift of time to consumers struggling with expenses.
  5. Giving patients a single contact for billing inquiries. This creates a more seamless patient financial experience. It also provides individuals with a trusted contact to go to with questions—especially important when so much is in flux. Revenue cycle staff also should follow common procedures for delivering price estimates, navigating discussions around payment and establishing payment plans. Make sure staff use scripted language for these conversations, and ask staff to share instances where scripting may need to be updated to reflect the current environment.

Enabling patients to discuss their financial needs with dignity is more critical than ever during periods of economic uncertainty. Taking the time to revisit your organization’s patient financial services approach not only sustains engagement, but also provides a positive impression of your organization as a whole—key to retaining patients’ loyalty over the long run.

Mark Spinner is CEO and president of AccessOne.