Debts have hospitals seeking payment up front

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Two Anchorage-area hospitals have launched efforts to make patients pay a portion of their bill before they receive nonemergency care, and a third hospital plans to do the same.

Hospital officials say money needs to be collected up front because thousands of Alaskans lack health insurance and struggle to pay their medical bills, driving up debts at Alaska Regional Hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center and Valley Hospital.

Before patients at Alaska Regional Hospital have nonemergency care, including some surgeries and elective procedures, they will be asked to give their copay, or a minimum deposit if they're uninsured, said Dan Houghton, the hospital's chief financial officer.

The hospital already has been asking some patients to pay before treatment, Houghton said. Now it will expand its efforts as Alaska Regional's parent company, HCA Inc., is making prepayment a nationwide initiative at its 191 hospitals.

Valley Hospital in Palmer also is trying to get copayments before patients have nonemergency care, said Elizabeth Ripley, hospital spokeswoman. Providence Alaska Medical Center plans to add a similar billing program in the upcoming months, said Karina Jennings, Providence spokeswoman.

In some cases, such as cosmetic surgeries or other elective procedures, patients could be turned away from local hospitals if they don't pay their charges up front.

In recent years, businesses have cut health insurance benefits for employees, hospital executives said. If businesses kept the benefit, they often shifted more of the costs for premiums, deductibles and copayments to workers.

The total cost of unreimbursed care for 4,927 U.S. hospitals in 2002 was $22.3 billion, according to American Hospital Association data published in The Wall Street Journal.

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