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For healthcare organizations, staffing shortages are compounding the severe financial impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Proven strategies can help reduce staff dependency and increase productivity to not only survive the staffing shortages but thrive in the future.

There are currently more open jobs in the U.S. than available workers to fill the positions. In May 2021, open jobs hit a record 9.2 million – only to reach more than 10 million open jobs two months later. Not only are the job openings increasing, but the length of time to fill a position is growing too. In fact, an open position can take 20 to 50 days to fill on average.

Staff shortages affect many industries. However, in healthcare, the labor shortage comes amid an ongoing pandemic that has already stretched finances to the breaking point. For 2021 alone, recent estimates put the income loss related to the pandemic at more than $50 billion dollars for hospitals and health systems – despite aid from the federal government. The additional costs for organizations related to the labor shortage, such as overtime for existing employees and training for new staff, only exacerbate these pandemic losses.

Rethinking how healthcare payments are handled can help resolve these financial issues. There are proven strategies to be more productive, reduce staff-dependent processes, and all while increasing payment volume. These strategies can help organizations not only survive their current staffing shortages but thrive in the years to come – as proven by the following three real-life stories.

Surviving Staff Shortages Strategy #1: Self-Service, Quick-Pay Options

Challenge: Disparate Patient Portals Increase Call Volume and Staff-Initiated Payments

Revenue Integrity Management Services (RIMS) is a billing service based in Chicago, Illinois. One of its clients is a large pediatric surgical practice with over 150 providers. The practice offered their families access to an online portal to support the clinical experience. This portal allows families to view test results, communicate with providers, manage appointments and more. However, there was no way for families to pay patient balances within the portal.

Instead, RIMS had a separate billing portal for families. This online portal required staff to help families to set up the portal account. Previously, this was the only way for families to make online payments. For many families, the work to set up the account completely negated any convenience offered by paying online. In fact, families would often call to set up an account in the billing portal but end up paying their balance while on the phone with staff.

Solution: Quick-Pay Option for Self-Service Payments

At the beginning of 2020, leadership at RIMS decided to fix payment problems caused by the portals that created more work for the staff. This change needed to happen as soon as possible because the call volume and staff work kept increasing, but guarantor payments did not. As a solution, RIMS implemented a quick-pay option for online payments.

The quick-pay option worked much like a guest checkout in a retail experience, where there is no need to create account credentials to make a payment. Instead, guarantors can simply enter their billing information and click or tap the button to “make a payment.”

With the quick-pay option, RIMS opened a convenient payment channel for its large client that immediately gave families and easy way to pay online.

RIMS began promoting the new payment channel by adding the URL to billing communications, including pre-collection letters and billing statements. Now, staff encourages families to pay their balances online whenever they call as part of daily operations, rather than taking a payment themselves as they often did in the past to avoid dealing with a cumbersome billing portal.

Compared to the old billing portal, families increasingly adopted the quick-pay channel. RIMS experienced a 250% increase in online payments over the previous system.

Surviving Staff Shortages Strategy #2: Vendor Consolidation

Challenge: It’s a Real Mess: Multiple Vendors and Disparate Workflows for Payments

Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin (GHC-SCW) is an integrated delivery network, which means the organization offers both health plan coverage and medical care for its patients. GHC-SCW collects payments for health plan premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs from its members. Previously, GHC-SCW worked with multiple vendors with various sub-accounts for these payments. All the vendors added up to more than a dozen accounts that needed to be managed by staff individually, to include separate portals and account credentials for each.

If there was an issue, GHC-SCW had to determine the correct vendor and/or the vendor’s gateway partner for resolution. Often, staff would receive a payment and could not identify which vendor sent it or what balance to reconcile it against. One vendor, a popular online payment system not designed for healthcare, was particularly difficult in resolving issues.

GHC-SCW leadership made vendor management a high priority for the organization to address. In part, this was due to growing enrollment in the individual market, which increased premium collections. Additionally, enrollment was increasing for consumer-driven health plans with higher out-of-pocket costs for members. With this payment trend, GHC-SCW had to collect more medical balances. As payment collections grew, reconciliation became more difficult with the various payment vendors and gateways. End-of-month reconciliation took weeks to complete.

Solution: A single vendor for all medical balances and premium payment collections

To resolve vendor headaches, leadership at GHC-SCW knew the first step was to reduce its number of payment vendors. But first, GHC-SCW needed a vendor that could securely accept EMV-based payments in its Epic Welcome kiosks. In that search, GHC-SCW found a payment vendor for all its medical balances and premium payment collections.

Now, GHC-SCW has one platform, exclusively designed and built for healthcare, to collect and manage all payments. If there is an issue, GHC-SCW has one point of contact for a quick resolution. Plus, GHC-SCW has a long-term roadmap to improve more of its healthcare payments processes and add more payment channels.

GHC-SCW has reduced its end-of-month reconciliation from a few weeks to a few days with a single platform payment vendor. Also, GHC-SCW has enterprise-level visibility into all of its payments, so teams know where all payments originate and can manage all payments in one place. GHC-SCW has not only scaled its existing resources to better manage payments but also accommodates increases in health plan enrollment and out-of-pocket collections. While reconciliation timeframes decreased dramatically, GHC-SCW payment volume grew 46 percent.

Surviving Staff Shortages Strategy #3: Integrate Payments Everywhere

Challenge: Disparate Systems Slow Down Payment Processes

Fresno Surgical Hospital (FSH) is a 27-bed physician-owned and multi-specialty surgical hospital located in Fresno, California – serving more than 17,000 patients annually. Previously, FSH relied on systems that were unable to integrate with their practice management system, MEDITECH. Staff had to manually enter data between various systems – either by switching between computer monitors or using paper printouts.

The need to manually process data across different systems forced staff to spend a lot of time and effort to complete simple tasks and resulted in a considerable drag on productivity. Ultimately, FSH leadership made the strategic decision to invest in solutions with robust automation and integration capabilities. This would free staff up to work on more complex projects while streamlining the more mundane work.

Additionally, FSH wanted to fix a problem caused by a vendor for patient statements that did not integrate with an online payment portal. Separate systems for statements and online payments meant that patient balances would not update in real-time for statement runs, so a patient may receive a bill even after making an online payment. Also, there was no ability to add features for patient convenience such as eStatements or email and text notifications.

Solution: Integrate Every Step of Healthcare Payments

FSH needed cost-effective, reliable and efficient collection tools that wouldn’t put a burden on existing resources or require additional personnel to manage. Ultimately, FSH leadership put value on technology solutions to support a goal of having personnel focus on work that requires problem-solving, instead of pushing paper and manual typing.

To optimize staff productivity, FSH selected a payments platform that integrates with MEDITECH, its practice management system. Now, FSH staff does not have to manually enter information in redundant systems. Payments automatically post and one entry populates all demographic and insurance information directly into MEDITECH.

Additionally, recent growth of the hospital resulted in a 33 percent increase in the number of invoices processed. Although the increase was substantial, the automation enabled higher efficiency, allowing the hospital to maintain the same level of staffing – a savings of over $50,000 a year.

In total, FSH saves $350k a year in process improvement, resources and collection efforts.

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