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McLoughlin Take 2: St. Peter’s making sure it gets paid

Friday, October 28, 2011
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Consider my excitement recently when I was afforded an up-close look at the results of the $259 million modernization and expansion of St. Peter’s Hospital. Whew-boy! Wait ’til you see the expansive lobby, which seems to be a blend of Regal Cinema and airport departure lounge. But even more impressive than the architecture was the fantastic customer service at the new-look St. Peter’s. Double whew-boy!!

How do I mean? Well, two weeks ago today, I got rushed to the emergency room with dangerously low blood pressure due, as it turned out, to serious dehydration. Two nights later, I am lying in my sickbed in my skivvies (apologies for that image) waiting for “60 Minutes,” consuming what seemed like a half-gallon of Miralax in preparation for two procedures the next morning, one of them my initial experience with the maneuver much publicized by Katie Couric.

As I fretted, needlessly as it happened, over the next morning’s events, in walks this gentleman who said he was from St. Peter’s “patient financial services” office. I put down the Miralax and listened as this guy, computer in hand, explained that it is his job to plan or to organize or to do whatever it is he does to smooth the way for my final bill from the hospital. Wonderful, I thought, how wonderful that this man is looking out for me. But I grew uneasy as he explained that his duties include determining whether a particular patient might be a “charity case.” Were the folks at St. Peter’s worried, knowing that I recently left a job, not knowing about my arrangements with the new TV station and the Daily Gazette, not knowing if these had rendered me a lout, either incapable or unwilling to meet my obligations?

Thankfully, the answer was no. “Patient Financial Services Man” looks at his comptuer and declares that given my health coverage, I will owe a $150 co-pay to St. Peter’s upon conclusion of my stay. And here’s where it gets good: He asked me, did I want to pony up the $150 right then and there, lying in my hospital bed, under the influence of Miralax?

I mean, at this point, I am thinking, is this not a wonderfully swell hospital or what? And is this not some beautiful customer service, offering me the opportunity to get that co-pay off my mind just hours before undergoing the Katie Couric and ultimately saving me a 44-cent postage stamp in the process. And not even a teensy bit of pressure. It was not like ante up or these procedures might go badly in the morning. Although stupid thoughts still roamed my mind, like thoughts of those sweepstakes contests where they assure you “no purchase necessary,” but the winner always seems to have bought something. Would someone rush in as I am undergoing the Katie Couric and ask for at least a partial payment? And most frightening of all, if I did not cough up, would they put me on

a low-sodium diet? The answer to all of these was no.

Unfortunately, that had to be my answer for “Patient Financial Services Guy,” too. I told him I had no pockets in my skivvies and one of the first things the hospital tells you upon entry is to send home all your valuables. Would he care for a nice, warm Miralax? I would have to settle up upon leaving the hospital or shortly thereafter as I have done each time in the past.

At first, my nurse thought I had been scammed: “I never heard of them sending someone to a patient’s bedside asking for payment.” But after calling a supervisor, she reported that “I guess we’ve been doing that.” I got exactly that answer the next morning (before the Katie Couric) when I called the PFS office to thank them for thinking about me and my co-pay.

In subsequent days, as I related this marvelous customer service to friends and co-workers, they almost unanimously were shocked that someone would come to my sickbed on a Sunday night looking for $150. Why? These hospitals no doubt lose millions to stiffs, so I say go for it. Matter of fact, if I were St. Peter’s, I would station my PFS guys on New Scotland Avenue at the entrance to the emergency room, where they could jump on the ambulance rigs and have some candid moments with the patients about their co-pays. Obviously, if someone is critically injured, you go easy on the “how would you like to pay” routine.

Albany Medical Center Hospital, like almost all hospitals, collects the co-pay prior to admission for elective or non-emergency care. “But we do not collect any money in a patient’s room,” a spokesperson told me. Ellis says it sends a counselor bedside — “as a courtesy and a convenience for patients” — just before departure and then collects the co-pay, hopefully, as the formerly ill go home. A spokeswoman at Ellis says she has heard anecdotally that more hospitals are trying to collect before the patient leaves the premises.

Now, as for the rest of my stay, it was mostly uneventful. The nurses — Lynne and Amanda and Edna and Christine, et. al. — were nicer to me than I probably deserved. The food, well look, I was there to get well, not for a fine dining experience. When the chefs at the Waters Edge Restaurant start doing appendectomies, that’s when I will demand a Michelin rating from the St. Pete’s kitchen.

Oh yeah, and this P.S. is for St. Peter’s: Your check is in the mail.

 
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