Trend: Hospitals requiring upfront cash payments before treatment

Of late, a growing number of hospitals have been insisting on cash payments before they offer high-ticket services to non-emergency patients if they're not sure they'll get paid. While such practices may not generate the best PR, it's a matter of survival, hospitals say. Even though the current slate of health reform schemes insure all citizens, it seems unlikely to address the problem of collecting payments for costly procedures. For example, Massachusetts plans include many high-deductible options, which still leaves hospitals deep in the red if patients don't pay their share.

Hospitals are being sapped by care for growing numbers of uninsured patients, and say that unless they get tough on patients with some means, some of them simply won't survive. For example, both HCA and LifePoint hospitals saw profits drop substantially during the first quarter of this year, largely due to jumps in bad debt expense--including lower collections on patient accounts. Uncompensated care has been flattening hospitals nationwide, with the burden climbing 44 percent in 2006, to $31.2 billion, from $21.6 billion in 2000. Such debt is helping to push hospital margins well below the the 3 to 5 percent considered appropriate, and sometimes destroys them entirely.

That being said, collecting cash aggressively can rebound when not-for-profits are involved. For example, this week the Wall Street Journal brought some unflattering attention to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which in late 2006 asked a leukemia patient for $105,000 up front because it wasn't satisfied with her insurance coverage. And with federal legislators like Sen. Chuck Grassley questioning not-for-profit hospitals' right to their tax exemptions, coming across as too money-driven has its perils.

To learn more about this trend:
- read this Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report item

Related Articles:
HMA adopts tougher collections strategy
In 2007, bad debt rising for hospitals
Bad debt savages HCA, LifePoint profits
HCA sees debt rising until patients get insured