Cementing your reputation for the future: Finances and billing

Trust in hospitals is high. Don’t let the moment pass.

Before the coronavirus pandemic came to dominate the news, a theme for us at Jarrard Inc. was dealing with the newly increased scrutiny on and reputational damage to healthcare providers. It was a trend that accelerated in 2019, with investigative reporters digging into the financial assistance and billing policies of hospitals across the country and calling into question the very mission of these organizations.

While the pandemic shifted everyone’s focus to crisis response, those questions have not gone away. Already, stories have been written about surprise billing and similar issues in the wake of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Yet a recent Jarrard Inc. survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategists, showed that more than two-thirds of respondents said their trust in hospitals has increased since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s in addition to almost three-quarters of respondents stating their trust in nurses and doctors has risen. In total, 86 percent of people trust hospitals, with 68 percent of respondents saying their trust in hospitals has increased.

This provides an opening to reconcile those financial issues that were hurting reputations.

As society shifts into recovery mode and providers begin to refocus operations, they should also work to build on the increased positive sentiment they’ve earned during the pandemic. Now is an ideal time to evaluate those financial assistance policies and billing practices. We’re not into giving operational or financial advice here, but we can say that it’s worth reviewing how your hospital handles billing with an eye towards whether those operational practices match up with your mission. Forty-five percent of respondents to our survey said that either they or someone in their household had a change in employment status due to the pandemic. Many of those lost insurance coverage and/or saw their wages cut. They will be worried about how to pay for care going forward. Create materials that clearly explain what you’re doing to help, what resources are available (whether from your organization or from others in the community) and remind them that you are here to care for anyone who comes through your doors.

Similarly, you’ll want to tell the story of how you’re using federal relief funds. There’s been a lot of money being dropped in provider bank accounts by HHS/CMS. Our accounting and consulting friends at PYA have noted [LINK] that in some cases the guidance around how hospitals, health systems and physician practices can use this money isn’t entirely clear. Therefore, taking good notes on how you are using it to care for COVID-19 patients and improve access is a regulatory need. It goes beyond checking the regulatory boxes, though. Again, there have been many stories in the past year about hospital finances. Combine that with the wall-to-wall coverage of COVID-19 and you’ve got a recipe for reporters asking questions about where the money was spent. Be prepared to tell – or, better, be proactive in telling – how any relief funds were used to fulfill your mission and help the people you serve.

Highlight the work your organization did during the pandemic. If you never saw a surge, talk about how you prepared for it and supported patients and staff through a time of fear. Talk about the role your hospital plays and make it clear, using the pandemic as a backdrop, of its essential nature in your community. This is not strictly financial, but it does help demonstrate your mission and create an undercurrent of support going forward.

You won’t be able to foresee every angle people might take in asking questions about your response to the pandemic. However, the principles of responsible transparency and telling your story clearly and repeatedly will go a long way to cementing the increased trust your community has in your organization. Or, if things are a little rocky right now, in getting that trust back.

David Shifrin