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Bill-Paying Made Easy

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Tenet's online service helps the hospital company cut costs and get more money in the door more quickly.

To patients, the process of deciphering and paying healthcare bills may be the most consumer-unfriendly sector in the economy today—even hospital and physician practice administrators admit it's true. But although that process still has far to go before it's as easy as, say, paying utility bills, some providers are starting to make progress.

One of those organizations is Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp. The hospital company has struggled to turn around its business since bad news surfaced with Medicare fraud problems at Redding (CA) Medical Center in 2003, which the company owned at the time. Since then, the chain has endured a round of hits, including bad publicity from its New Orleans hospitals' Hurricane Katrina response and bad debt problems. But as its most recent quarterly earnings report suggests, Tenet has begun to make positive financial strides—partly due to new consumer-friendly strategies like online bill pay, introduced in May. Although Jeff Nieman, vice president of patient financial services operations for Tenet, isn't sure the initiative will have much of an effect on bad debt, he is excited about its cost-savings potential.

"I'm not convinced it will help us reduce bad debt, but it will speed payment, increase patient satisfaction, and may encourage repeat business," he says.

The tool, developed with a vendor now owned by NCR that created passenger kiosks and the software to run them for American Airlines, allows patients to log on to Tenet's Web site, view the amount of their bill and the contractual adjustments, and set up payment online—whether in full or over time. Tenet piloted the functionality with its Texas hospitals in April and brought it nationwide the following month. It sent letters to patients to let them know the tool is available, but between the time it went live and the letters went out, "we had a dozen or so patients in each hospital's case find the Web site themselves and start making payments," says Nieman.

Tenet's two goals are to get money in the door faster and save on costs—not necessarily in that order. "Cost savings are the bigger of the two," Nieman says. Patient utilization goals include a target of having 3% of patient payments made through the Web site by the end of 2008. At press time, Tenet had surpassed that goal. By 2009 it expects 15% of patient payments to be made there, and by 2010, 25% to 35%.

Philip Betbeze

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