Northwell chief: Medical debt ombudsman will 'check and balance' collections

Communication is key when it comes to hospitals handling patient debt efficiently, according to Rich Miller, Northwell Health's executive vice president and chief business strategy officer.

Looking to establish an independent reviewer to help patients pay their medical debt and avoid legal action, the New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based health system said June 15 it will create a medical debt ombudsman.

"It is similar to how an ombudsman in media or government works: an independent party that works as a check and balance to ensure there is an attempt to reach out to patients to make sure they know the options available to them and take an independent look at an individual's propensity to pay," Mr. Miller said. 

The ombudsman, which Mr. Miller says will be staffed by an independent but yet-to-be-determined third-party firm, will communicate with patients about payment plans, discounts, charity care, insurance coverage and other options for assistance.

The ombudsman will serve as a liaison between patients and Northwell's financial assistance program, proactively contacting patients who have been unresponsive to their medical bills. Those patients may be directed to one of Northwell's 120 financial counselors or notified of the system's financial assistance applications available in 22 languages or interpretation services available in 250 languages, among other resources.

The ombudsman will also examine individual patients' ability to pay for their medical debt. Mr. Miller said it will act as a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval," taking into account situations that may have changed a patient's financial reality, such as job loss or other challenges.

If the ombudsman finds a patient does not have the ability to pay for their medical debt, Mr. Miller said Northwell has "no interest in pursuing legal action." He also said Northwell will not take any legal action against patients over their debt until it has an ombudsman party in place. 

The share of Northwell patients that face legal action over unpaid medical bills is less than 0.1 percent. The system provided $253 million in charity care in 2020. "We believe we have the strongest charity care program in our market," said Mr. Miller.

"We feel we have strong financial assistance programs that we offer to patients. We want to help every patient that has needs," said Mr. Miller. "For patients who have the ability to pay, they should pay their bills. When patients who have the ability to pay do not do so, it endangers our ability to provide assistance to those who have needs."

Northwell is in talks with more than one group to fill the ombudsman role. Mr. Miller said the system seeks an organization that has the ability to be independent and an interest in protecting vulnerable populations.

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