The Cycle Never Ends
A big picture look at Revenue Cycle management and touches on the interconnected nature of the first point of patient contact through a paid claim.
By Eric Cardin, PT, MS
Revenue cycle management, a relatively mild term in the world of business jargon. It’s a simple yet important idea to look at the “management” of revenue. Physical therapy practice can be an emotionally and personally rewarding profession, but the obstacles between treatment and payment can be daunting. The term cycle implies a defined series of events or a routine that repeats itself, a cycle or pattern that is overtly and covertly tied together and the nature of which holds the key to successful management.
Visits x Charges x Accounts Receivable = Revenue (Income minus Expenses) Simple, right? See a patient, charge for it, collect that money, pay the bills. Have something left over. Many businesses, including physical therapists in private practice, struggle or even fail by not digging deeper into what drives the factors in this basic equation for revenue cycle management.
Visits are revenue. No matter what metric you use, when you get to the bottom of the paper, visits drive the bus. Getting the patient in the door is an obvious first step but keeping them coming and growing the practice is the first and most important step. After all, there is no revenue cycle without revenue.
From the moment of first contact (phone intake, walk in, scheduling a neighbor for an evaluation on your phone—thank you, cloud-based electronic medical record (EMR)—while standing in line at the grocery store), the revenue cycle starts. So much of our ability to efficiently bill and collect revenue and manage cash flow is dependent on how well we collect information up front. “Clean” demographic information is the first obstacle we face in getting paid on time. Depending on the volume of your office, the ancillary staff you may or may not have, and the collection method, there are several “fail points.” Handwriting problems, typing errors, missed steps, and general lack of organization can and will delay a claim. It is very important to get the information from your client and get it into your billing/scheduling software in a quick and accurate manner. If you look at your turnaround time (time to get paid from the point you send out claim), you should be able to discern what the average is and also take note of what claims are rejected and why. Take note of the common errors and implement simple policy changes to reduce the rate of rejection. Your cash flow will thank you for it.
After you’ve efficiently and accurately collected demographic information and processed it without error, you still have some hurdles to overcome. Was there a referral in place? Was the patient authorized and/or do they have active insurance that will cover them during their entire episode of care? There are a few ways to go about this. One, you leave it to the consumer. It is their responsibility to know their coverage. Or two, you collect the necessary information at intake and you “trust, but verify.” There is usually a personal cost (doing it yourself) or actual payroll expense (paying someone to do it) in the time it takes to make sure all the referrals and authorizations are in order, but for a solo therapist with a full (30 to 40 hour) schedule of patients, for example, the effects on the bottom line are worth the up-front effort.
Customer Service The unifying theme in the first factor of “Visits = Revenue” is the ability to collect information. The tie that binds the components together is a positive customer service experience. A pleasant phone call or face-to-face encounter that leaves your client with the feeling that you are helping them get registered, authorized, referred, and ready for what is usually their first physical therapy experience will go a long way to establish your office as the destination of choice for physical therapy. It is wise to remember that the most important marketing opportunity you have is the patient who is already in front of you. Creating an environment that helps the client heal and doing so in a way that creates a feeling that everyone in the office is helping them on their journey will only serve to grow your patient base and your bottom line.
Payer Mix Once you’ve seen the patient you’ve got more hurdles to jump through. What’s your payer mix, what are their coverage rules, what codes do they accept, and which ones pay well? The next factor in the equation for cycle management, “Charges,” is another important factor. Payer mix (what percentages of which insurers are paying you) should be a huge part of your due diligence prior to getting started. If you find yourself inundated with patients that have a low reimbursement rate, you might find it hard to stay in the black. Payer mix can be quite varied, and can change even from one town to the next. It is important to investigate who your patients may be, where they will come from, and who is insuring them before you decide where to practice. After you’ve made that decision, it is a good idea to routinely sample your payer mix and take note of where your bread is being buttered. Once you understand that, you can tailor your demographic collection and charge habits to maximize your revenue. As you understand payer mix, you will also find that it is important to stay on top of credentialing, continuing education (regarding coding/charges), and global changes to reimbursement. Visits x Charges = Revenue. If you have a multitherapist practice, get in the habit of sharing who pays what and what is well reimbursed and what is not. Even if they are not the practice owner, you will be surprised that they often do care that they are reimbursed appropriately. The cycle continues with or without you and your attention to detail is key. The only thing you stand to lose is money!
Accounts Receivable Now that you’ve created a positive customer service environment and efficiently and accurately collected patient demographics while understanding insurance rules and gotten the client better without going over the allotted visits—it’s time to collect your revenue. Visits x Charges x Accounts Receivable. It is important to note that this equation we use to describe the revenue cycle uses multipliers, not addition. This is done with the intention of creating an understanding that success or failure will move exponentially. Small mistakes or small victories will carry over quickly. If you are seeing a hundred patients a week or a thousand, then that is your multiple. One mistake repeated 100 times. Or one success repeated over and over. It is all connected and all part of the revenue cycle.
Accounts Receivable (AR) is a basic component of any business that allows their “product” to be taken or used with a promise of payment. Physical therapists in private practice face the delightful challenge of having varied payment methods, contractual adjustments to our fees, and limited ability to make changes. Again, there are options. Cash-only payment at time of service sounds appealing when you delve deep into third-party reimbursement, but for those of us not ready for that option we must soldier on and get on our AR. Since we know we’ve already collected accurate demographics and used our expensive billing software to send out “clean” claims, we can just sit back and watch the bank account swell. Right? Think again. The struggle is real and the cycle waits for no one.
Again, the tie that binds is customer service. Helping your client understand their benefit before they start physical therapy can seriously and positively affect your AR. Kindly let each patient know what their personal financial responsibility will be (copay) or could be (estimate their deductible) for their time in physical therapy and routinely remind them that their copayment, coinsurance, deductible, etc., is due, or will be due. Accept all forms of payment, remove all obstacles to “I forgot my [insert payment method here].” Create controls in the system to keep balances low and keep your consumer informed. Soft chasing them the same day in the front office is much easier and much more cost effective than bringing it up 90 to 120 days later. Start at the first point of contact with creating an understanding that you provide a service and that service has a cost. Too often we fall into the trap of the “helper/healer,” but have you ever tried to pay the utilities with good feelings?
Once the claims are out and awaiting payment, watch your rejections and Explanation of Benefits. Much of the payment process is automated and this has been to our benefit, but computers still can make errors and somewhere along the line someone is processing your claims who maybe—just maybe—isn’t having the best day and they just might let a charge slip through unpaid. If you are not managing this part of the cycle, there are plenty of ways to lose money. Pay attention to individual filing limits, coding rules, and coverage limitations. Bill your services as soon as you can, follow up as quickly as possible, and send out statements weekly (or more frequently if you can) to keep the cycle going and your cash flow strong. Bill the claim, correct the claim, rebill the claim. Keep the statements rolling.
Finally, you’ve collected demographics, charged appropriately, followed up on outstanding claims, and hopefully watched your bottom line grow. Revenue cycle management is constant. It begins with the first point of contact with every patient and ends with prompt and accurate payment. Tight controls, simple policies and procedures, and attention to detail should result in timely payment. Each practice should take a look at least quarterly at the components of the cycle. As time passes your data set grows, and you can see cause and effect and sharpen the parts of the cycle that lead to prompt, accurate payment.
Eric Cardin, PT, MS, is the executive director of South County Physical Therapy, Inc., which has six locations in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.