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Benefit design, higher deductibles will increase bad debt for hospitals

Legislative proposals could reduce bad debt, but would likely introduce additional complexity to billing processes.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Changes in insurance benefit design that shift greater financial responsibility to the patient, rising healthcare costs and confusing medical bills will continue to drive growth in bad debt -- often faster than net patient revenue, according to a new report from Moody's.

Legislative proposals to simplify billing have the potential to reduce bad debt, but the downside for hospitals is that they'll likely introduce additional complexity to billing processes and complicate relationships with contracted physician groups. A recent accounting change will reduce transparency around reporting bad debt.

Higher cost sharing and rising deductibles are the main contributors to the trend of patients assuming greater financial responsibility, a trend that's been occurring for more than a decade, and that will further increase the amount of uncollected payments. Hospitals and providers are responsible for collecting copays and deductibles from patients, which may not always be possible at the time of service; the longer the delay between providing service and collecting payment, the less likely a hospital is to collect payment.

On top of that, the higher an individual's deductible is, the greater the share of reimbursement that a hospital has to collect. The prevalence of general deductibles increased to 85% of covered workers in 2018, up from 55% in 2006, and the amount of the annual deductible almost tripled in that time to an average of $1,573.

Multiple factors are driving the trend toward higher cost sharing, including a desire among employees and employers for stable premium growth despite steadily rising healthcare costs and the growing popularity of high deductible health plans.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT

Hospitals face an uphill battle when it comes to reducing bad debt. Strategies include point-of-service collections, enhanced technology to better estimate a patient's responsibility for a medical bill, and offering low-cost financing or payment plans.

A common feature of these approaches is educating patients about what portion of a medical bill is their responsibility, after taking into account the specifics of their insurance plan. But hospitals often find it hard to provide reliable cost estimates for a given service, which can thwart efforts to provide patients with an accurate estimate of their financial responsibility.

One difficulty is that medical bills partly depend on the complexity of service and amount of resources consumed -- which may not be known ahead of time. There's also the need to incorporate specific benefits of the patient's own insurance plan. A certain amount of bad debt is likely to arise from patients accessing emergency care given the insufficient time to determine insurance coverage.

Another difficulty in billing is surprise medical bills, received by insured patients who inadvertently receive care from providers outside their insurance networks, usually in emergency situations. While the term "surprise medical bills" refers to a specific, narrow slice of healthcare costs, they have become part of the broader debate about the affordability and accessibility of U.S. healthcare.

THE LARGER TREND

To minimize surprise bills, Congress is considering proposals to essentially "bundle" all of the services a patient receives in an emergency room into a single bill. Under a bundled billing approach, the hospital would negotiate a set charges for a single or "bundled" episode of care in the emergency room. The hospital would then allocate payments to the providers involved.

This approach, which major hospital and physician trade groups oppose, has the potential to significantly affect hospitals and disrupt the business models of physician staffing companies, according to Moody's. Many hospitals outsource the operations and billing of their emergency rooms or other departments to staffing companies. Bundling services would require a change in the contractual relationship between hospitals and staffing companies.

Another recent proposal in Congress would require in-network hospitals to guarantee that all providers operating at their facilities are also in network. This approach adds significant complexity because many physicians and ancillary service providers are not employed or controlled by the hospitals where they work. Some hospitals would likely seek to employ more physicians, leading to increases in salaries, benefits and wages expense.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com