5 Tips for Handling Patients Who Don't Pay

Dealing with past due accounts is never easy within any industry. In healthcare, the increased occurrence of high deductible health plans (HDHP's) and increasing healthcare costs have pushed practices and hospitals to develop new and more creative methods for collecting payments from patients.

If your practice has not explored new options for practice collections and payment management, the need for new policies may not be something you can continue to ignore.

According to a 2016 article in Becker's Hospital Review, 62 percent of participants in a recent survey reported serious concern about their ability to pay for medical care, while another 28 percent reported that they skipped medical testing due to potential healthcare costs.

The same article stated that one in five Americans with insurance encountered problems paying medical bills during the previous year and more than half (53 percent) of Americans without insurance reported similar issues.

In short, the ability to pay medical bills is a major concern for most Americans-whether insured or not-so much that they're even willing to skip medical care to avoid costs they’re uncertain they can afford.

Healthcare providers can help alleviate this concern and prevent excessive bad debt in practice collections by adopting a few clear policies and procedures to help improve the payment process. Adopting one or more of the tips below can put both your practice and patients in a better position to ensure medical bills are covered in a timely manner.

Put policies in writing and inform patients up front about payment expectations.
The first step is to set a plan in place based on past trends. If you have noticed certain patterns in insured or uninsured patient behavior, set up a policy to manage those potential issues. For instance, a great policy to implement is setting the expectation that patients must pay their co-pays at the time of the visit. All patients should be verified in advance, so that payment expectations can be set prior to the appointment. This information should be communicated both during the new patient intake process and on every phone call or other interaction when the appointment is set or confirmed.

Set up clear and effective patient follow-up procedures.
Implement a plan within your practice to follow up with patients who are falling behind on their payments. It's important not to simply let unpaid payments go. Many patients have issues with forgetting or having to prioritize payments. If your practice collections numbers fall behind repeatedly, you may even consider setting up a recurring payment system so that patients will be less likely to put aside their regular payment to your office.

Communicate practice collections and past due balances in more than one way.
If a patient have fallen behind on a payment plan, collecting payments from patients should become a key priority for practice collections teams. You should communicate with patients via email and/or mailed invoice to remind patients of upcoming payments before the payment is due, then continue to follow up by voicemail, email, and regular mail-as many methods as possible-if the payment has not been received. Keep following up and you will have more chance of receiving payment than not. The fact is that most patients want to make their payments and, given reminders, will often comply, whether sooner or later.

Avoid making threats. According to a recent Physicians Practice article, "Threats will get you nowhere." It's incredibly true. Make sure your staff is trained to deal with angry patients and to keep calm themselves despite overdue accounts. It’s not personal for most patients, and it’s important to avoid making it personal. Threats, or wording that can be perceived as a threat, will only complicate matters and potentially inspire unintended resistance.

When all else fails, seek other options.
Don't be afraid to look into hiring a collections agency if your internal methods are not working. You can also have your lawyer deliver a demand notice prior to sending patients to collections. Collecting payments from patients before you reach that final step is always preferable for everyone involved.

Most practices have begun to realize the importance of making healthcare as open and affordable as possible, for both insured and non-insured patients. If your practice hasn’t undertaken steps to update your collections procedures and policies, the sooner the better. Both your patients and your collections numbers will be all the healthier for it.
 
About the Author - Ashley Choate is a native of Jacksonville, FL where she lives with her son, dog, and three cats. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Jacksonville University with a BA in English and holds an MAED in Adult Education and Training. She lives for reading and writing, learning and teaching, and figuring out the day-to-day traumas and joys of mommyhood.