- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Hospitals in and around the Charlotte area are offering multiyear, no-interest payment plans to help patients with their bills.

The Charlotte Observer reports (https://bit.ly/1DD1Pp9) Novant Health, which operates four hospitals in Mecklenburg County, started offering interest-free payment plans for patients with outstanding bills in 2013.

Carolinas HealthCare, which had offered some interest-free plans for at least 10 years, has expanded those options.

In the past year, Stephen Burr, senior vice president of patient financial services for Carolinas HealthCare, said the system’s financial counselors noticed that more people are “really having trouble paying their bills.”

“Affordable coverage usually comes with high deductibles, and patients are now responsible for more of the costs,” Burr said. “The ones that have that insurance (may not have been) fully aware of just how much they’re on the hook to pay for.”

Carolinas HealthCare has been among the most aggressive North Carolina hospital systems when it comes to filing lawsuits and liens against patients with outstanding bills. But the number of lawsuits decreased by about 50 percent since 2010. The system has also expanded its financial assistance program for low-income and uninsured patients.

Under the current charity care policy, uninsured patients with annual incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level - about $23,000 for an individual or $47,700 for a family of four - can qualify for free care. Those with incomes from 200 to 400 percent of the poverty level qualify for discounts.

In addition, hardship settlements are available for patients with balances of more than $5,000 after all insurance payments if that amount is greater than 20 percent of household financial resources.

In April 2013, Novant began offering multiyear zero-interest payment plans to patients through ClearBalance, a San Diego-based company.

Novant’s previous vendor “acted like a collections agency” and “wasn’t always as friendly to our patients as we would like for them to be,” said Melanie Wilson, a vice president in charge of billing and collections for Winston-Salem-based Novant.

Under its previous debt-collection practice, Novant charged 12 percent interest on payment plans, and patients had a 31 percent default rate, Wilson said.

Since the switch to zero-interest loans, the default rate has dropped to 9.6 percent, and Novant collected 6 percent more from patients on payment plans in 2014 than the year before.

All of Novant’s patient payment plans have been converted to interest-free accounts, Wilson said. If a patient with a new payment plan has old accounts, they can be rolled into one so there is just one payment per month. In December, Novant expanded access to interest-free plans from hospital bills to physician practices.

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Information from: The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com


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