It’s no secret that hospitals and health systems have been facing severe financial woes in the past couple years. These money problems have forced many providers to make what they likely felt were tough but necessary choices — such as shuttering underperforming service lines, laying off staff and using debt collection agencies to obtain payment from patients.
Some of these tactics have even invited negative scrutiny
. However, a new report argued that commercial payers should shoulder some of the blame when it comes to how hospitals are managing their dire financial circumstances.
Compared to government payers, commercial payers take significantly longer to pay hospitals and deny claims at a higher frequency — often without a justifiable reason to do so — according to the report published by consulting firm Crowe. These delays mean that hospitals are waiting longer than they need to receive commercial payments — during a time when they need cash flow to be expedited, not needlessly delayed, the report said.
Crowe analyzed data from the more than 1,800 hospitals that use its revenue cycle analytics platform and found that about 45% of a typical hospital’s patient population is covered by a commercial health insurance carrier.
Commercially insured patients have conventionally been thought of as hospitals’ preferred population. This is because hospitals can negotiate prices with commercial payers, and these payers usually pay higher rates than government payers like Medicare and Medicaid. For the average net revenue per inpatient case, commercial plans pay $18,156.50 compared to $14,887.10 from Medicare. For outpatients, commercial plans pay $1,606.86 for the average patient case, compared to $707.30 paid by Medicare.
Reimbursement rates may be higher among commercial payers, but getting them to pay in a timely manner is an entirely different story, per the report. During the first quarter of this year, commercial payers initially denied 15.1% of inpatient and outpatient claims compared to 3.9% for Medicare over the same period, according to the report.
Crowe analyzed the claim denial category of prior authorization and precertification denials. These occur when a payer denies a claim based on their decision that a provider did not get prior approval for care before it was delivered or that the care rendered wasn’t necessary based on the patient’s medical diagnosis.
Last year, the prior authorization/precertification denial rate for inpatient claims among commercial payers was 2.8%, up from 2.4% in 2021. This rate increased to 3% during the first three months of 2023, but the denial rate for traditional Medicare was just 0.2% during the same period.
Another claim denial category that the report examined is the request for information (RFI). RFI denials happen when a payer decides not to process a claim because it is missing some type of required documentation, such as a signature or copy of the medical record. In this category, commercial payers’ denial rate is 12 times higher than Medicare, the report found.
Most of the claims that commercial payers deny eventually get paid. However, the administrative effort required for hospitals to turn an initially-denied claim into a payment costs a good deal of time and money — two things in short supply at hospitals
To obtain payment from a denied claim, a provider must investigate the claim, determine what they have to do to rectify the problem and resubmit the claim — a process that can take weeks — said Colleen Hall, the managing principal for Crowe’s healthcare consulting group, in a recent interview. This process creates “an aging accounts receivable situation” for the provider and delays them from receiving much-needed cash.
“There certainly are several for-profit insurers out there. I won’t name names, but I think that those for-profit entities are in direct conflict with the nonprofit hospitals. I don’t know what goes on in the for-profit payer side of things, but could there be actions that they’re deploying to delay payments? Potentially. There have certainly been denials that our clients, as providers, have to manage only to find were denied for no reason,” Hall declared.
In the first quarter of this year, about a third of the claims that providers submitted to commercial payers took more than three months to get paid, the report found.
It’s difficult for hospitals to gain steady financial footing when the payers that have the best reimbursement rates are holding onto a third of their claims payments for more than 90 days, Hall pointed out.
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