by NATHANIEL NELSON
Despite being such an integral part of people’s daily lives, health care brings a lot of anxiety. What if that lump is something dangerous? How do I handle chronic conditions? How do I pay for this? It’s that last question that Winona Health has been working to alleviate for patients, introducing multiple levels of information, assistance and options to help people find what they need and figure out how to manage their bills.
“One of the things I think we’ve seen over the last couple years is what is really the leading concern for folks is the financial side of health care,” Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz said. “That’s not a really good statement about our health care industry. That leads the conversation of if they’ll even seek health care or not. For us, it was trying to get ahead of that and confront it.”
Schultz said concerns over the cost of health care have been growing in recent years, as prices and insurance become more and more complicated. Medications, too, have their own problems.
“It’s the drumbeat, not just in our community, but across the U.S. that health care has become unaffordable,” Schultz said. “We have people who don’t get the services that they need and feel like they are put in a position between basic needs and health care needs.”
Audrey Pronschinske, Winona Health director of revenue cycle, helps lead the Patient Resource Center, which was introduced into the hospital earlier this year. According to Pronschinske, the center helps communicate with patients about various programs and bills, bringing them into the fold when it comes to the cost of their care.
At the Patient Resource Center, finance employees work with nurses to communicate specific issues to each patient who comes forward with issues.
“We have the financial and clinical side, which together makes the whole purchase,” Pronschinske said. “We’ve had some really good results when we work together, and it’s helping patients understand what their condition is and if it’s covered by insurance.”
Patients are able to come to the resource center at any time to ask questions about their bills, including how the cost breaks down, how to navigate insurance coverage, or help connect them with other community resources. Medical bills can be complicated, with deductibles, copayments, co-insurance, preventative care, diagnostic care and other complicated terms obscuring the meaning, and the resource center was founded to help patients understand each part, Pronschinske said.
“For example, we won’t know how much of their deductible they have already met,” Schultz added. “It really is more helpful to sit down one by one and work through them on that.”
The resource center isn’t the only thing available to help patients with their billing troubles. Back in 1986, the Ben and Edith Miller Patient Care Fund was created to assist struggling patients with covering their medical bills and debt. According to Schultz, many of the gifts received from the Winona Health Foundation go to that fund, along with fundraising throughout the year.
“[The fund goes] to help patients who have outstanding medical bills and no resources to cover that,” Schultz said. “We’ve been provided more than $900,000 a year for people in those situations, anywhere from $5 to a couple thousand [per patient.]”
In 2017, the fund helped 812 people, including some families who had no insurance at all.
It’s not just the back end of the bill, either. Schultz explained that Winona Health has been working closely on its community health program to reach more patients, particularly focusing on preventative care and affordable health care options. If patients don’t have to go to the hospital as often, then they won’t have to spend as much and can focus on staying healthy themselves.
“People can’t even think about their health status if they can’t afford their medications or put food on the table,” Schultz said.
Winona Health has also added additional programs over the past few months to help with cost issues, including “SmartExam,” the hospital’s new online visit program. Instead of driving to the hospital or having to make an appointment, patients can go online and spend $39 to talk with a doctor and get a diagnosis and treatment plan in under and hour. While the program does not work for patients with more severe health problems, it provides an affordable option for those who are coming down with the sniffles.
“Are there better ways to provide the care, and more affordable ways to provide care? The short answer is yes, there is,” Schultz said. “In the end, if health care prices itself out of doing anything, we are nowhere closer to completing our mission.”