New option, provided through InstaMed electronic payment network, makes it easier for patients to see what they owe and pay all their doctors.
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United Healthcare, one of the two largest health insurers in the U.S., set an important precedent when it recently announced its introduction of an online bill payment service that enables United members to pay their bills to healthcare providers by credit card or bank transfer.
United, which has integrated the online bill-pay capability with its claims processing system, is the first payer to supply a service of this kind, said Victoria Bogatyrenko, VP of products innovation for United, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
Although electronic claims submission, remittance advice and funds transfer have been widely adopted in the industry, the process of collecting the ever-increasing portion of payments that patients owe remains in the Middle Ages of technology. Only two-thirds of physician practices take credit cards, and the ability to accept electronic payments from patients on provider websites is common only among larger hospitals and physician practices, said Chris Seib, chief technology officer of InstaMed, which is providing the electronic payment network for United's online bill payment program.
So the significance of United's move is that it provides a more efficient way for many providers, especially small physician practices and community hospitals, to receive payments from patients. Also, the approach makes it easier for patients to see what they owe and pay their bills to all of their doctors. That includes providers who are outside United's network but have been paid by United, said Bogatyrenko.
The United executive noted that the bill payment option is one of several features that the company has added to myclaimsmanager, part of its myuhc.com portal, over the past 18 months. Other features help people understand their benefits and anticipate their out-of-pocket costs before they visit the doctor or go to the hospital.
Besides enabling online bill payments, the new program:
-- helps consumers check claims for accuracy and resolve any discrepancies;
-- highlights the current status of an individual's deductible and out-of-pocket spending;
-- tracks medical expenses for tax reporting;
-- provides claim details with color-coded visuals;
-- and allows consumers to make notes and flag claims for follow-up, as well as mark claims that they've already paid.
Providers are interested in the online bill pay feature because they're acutely aware of the importance of self-pay collections, Seib said. Many doctors and hospitals already are enrolled in InstaMed, which gives them the ability to receive online payments from any patient. To date, he said, InstaMed has transferred about $60 billion in healthcare payments.
The group of providers registered with InstaMed -- Seib declined to provide the number -- is a "great starting point" for the United bill payment program, Bogatyrenko said. In the first month after the program's launch, she said, it processed $2.3 million in online payments to providers, and she expects the service to handle about 25,000 payments per month.
Providers don't have to enroll with InstaMed to receive these payments, she noted. Patients can use the United portal to pay their providers directly from a bank account or a health savings account. And they can ask United to recruit their providers to InstaMed so they can pay by credit card in the future. InstaMed also offers its customers the option of having the firm collect bills from patients through their own websites or at the point of service, Seib said.
Through United, InstaMed can pay any provider, whether or not they're registered with the company, because it can use the same bank routing information that United uses to pay claims, Bogatyrenko said.
The initial feedback from plan members and employers to the online bill payment system has been positive, Bogatyrenko noted. "Employers are encouraging these kinds of innovations because of the trend toward greater consumer financial responsibility," she said.