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The Bills at the Bottom of Consumers' Priority List? Medical Bills

Analysis  |  By Alexandra Wilson Pecci  
   December 16, 2020

Thirty-seven percent of people end up paying medical bills with credit cards, and of those, three-quarters finance their medical bills via credit for multiple months.

A patient describing their medical bills as "high stress and low priority," is exactly the opposite of what revenue cycle leaders want to hear, but that's the finding of a new VisitPay survey.

It found that 35% of people say they would consider putting off treatment for COVID-19 to avoid medical bills. In addition, 39% are more worried about dealing with the financial burdens of the illness than contracting it in the first place. In addition, 66% of people said the pandemic has had the greatest impact on their personal finances this year.

"The most important takeaway from the survey is how dire people's financial situations have become," Kent Ivanoff, co-founder and CEO of VisitPay, tells HealthLeaders via email. "If you are leading an organization in charge of capturing/recovering that revenue, you need to be empathetic to your patients' circumstances."

Medical bills in general are a huge stressor for patients as well, with 60% citing them as a top source of stress. In fact, medical bills land at No. 2 among bills that causes them the most stress, behind only credit card bills.

That stress doesn't lead to a greater likelihood to pay, though: Patient in the survey ranked medical bills last among common bills (including credit card, phone, internet, and cable bills) that the prioritize in a given month.

Consumers are frustrated with many elements of the medical billing experience, including surprise costs (31%), confusion on how much insurance is paying (20%), and unclear charges and dates (18%).

In addition, 37% end up paying medical bills with credit cards. Of those people, three-quarters finance them via credit for multiple months, "with just under half reporting they are using a credit card from four months to longer than a year," Ivanoff says.

"This timeline, combined with a credit card interest rate in the mid-teens, at best, and into the 20-30% can create significant financial stress for the patient," he says. "When compared to the financial repayment offerings that a healthcare system might provide, longer terms and lower interest, the impact of these long-term balances and high-interest rates seem significantly impactful."

These dire financial circumstances, paired with the low priority patients give medical bills, means that health systems need to find better ways to help patients pay their healthcare costs. Ivanoff says without an individualized plan in place for people, systems wont reach patients at all.

He says next steps should include three things:

  • Proactive communication: "The entire healthcare system, not just the revenue cycle, needs to be proactive with patient communication. People are avoiding care because of the stress related to medical billing when that doesn't need to be the case," he says. "By being upfront about costs and payment options and communicating those options in a personalized way, people will feel more empowered to take control of their healthcare and engage with the system."
  • Ease of payment: "The process of paying needs to be made easy. Our data shows people don't prioritize paying medical bills," he says. "By making it easy to pay, through channels they want, and with an experience they expect, you can build transparency and trust with your patients which will result in positive financial outcomes for patients and providers."
  • Plenty of compassion: "We have seen in our results that people have been impacted severely by COVID. This has created a tremendous amount of financial uncertainty for people and they need new ways to repay their debt," he says. "Systems should look into extending repay periods during this crunch and look to offer more compassionate financing options to meet people where their needs are."

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.

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