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How Should an Office Handle this Disgruntled Patient with Unpaid Bills and Ongoing Medical Needs?

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DEENA, BILLING MANAGER at Rose Family Vision in southern Rhode Island, was reviewing an accounts receivable statement when her extension rang.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NATALIE TAYLOR is owner of Artisan Eyewear in Meredith, NH. She offers regional private practice consulting and ABO/COPE approved presentations. Email her at [email protected]

“Hi Deena. You asked me to tell you when Edwin was about to check out. Can you come to the front desk?” said a receptionist.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she replied, grabbing her clipboard.

Edwin, an older gentleman, was pacing the showroom when Deena arrived. He saw her and nodded in recognition. “Nice to see you again, Edwin,” said Deena, extending her hand. “Let’s sit someplace quiet.”

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Deena escorted Edwin into an empty exam room and closed the door. “So, I know you had your eye exam today with Dr. Rose,” she said, “and we still have the glasses you ordered in 2017.”

Edwin rolled his eyes, both annoyed and embarrassed.

“You paid half, but you do still owe $240 on these glasses, and we have a $15 monthly late fee which has essentially doubled your bill,” she said slowly. This elicited a short expletive from the patient, but Deena continued. “At your insistence, Dr. Rose agreed to schedule your appointment today and will bill your insurance, but we do need to address this past due balance.”

Edwin leaned forward in his chair. “I was hospitalized for a month and couldn’t get my glasses when they were ready, then I was recovering, and then I started getting the late fee bills and harassing phone calls, and decided I didn’t want them anymore,” he huffed.

“Yes, I did read that in your online review,” Deena said delicately, pulling from her clipboard a printout of the two-star evaluation. “However, glasses are custom made for you, and as I had said last year, we can’t cancel an order after it is completed.”

“Those glasses are useless now,” he replied. “I got cataract surgery down in Florida last winter and the prescription is completely different now. Why should I pay for something that I can’t even use?!”

Just then Dr. Rose knocked gently on the door and came in.

“Hi Edwin. Hi Deena,” she said gently, sensing the tension. “I wanted to join the conversation after today’s exam.” She took a seat next to Edwin and faced Deena. “Edwin needs a LipiFlow treatment, and we discussed using CareCredit to make that happen.”

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Deena looked at her boss, dumbfounded. Awkward silence followed.

“Edwin, why don’t you come out with me, one of our staff is going to explain CareCredit and help you fill out the application paperwork,” said Dr. Rose.

Deena stayed put. Dr. Rose returned a moment later.

“I know what you’re going to say,” began Dr. Rose, “but he needs medical care. Attach the optical bill to the new charges and put it all thru CareCredit, if that makes things easier for him.”

“What a mess,” moaned Deena.

“We need him to change that bad online rating,” said Dr. Rose. “It’s killing our average.”

“I’d rather fire him as a patient,” she replied.

“Come on, Deena,” Dr. Rose scoffed. “I need you to get Edwin back on our side.”

The Big Questions

  • What can Deena do about the outstanding optical bill and “useless” glasses?
  • Should an outstanding optical bill ever block ongoing medical care?
  • If you were Dr. Rose, would you have done anything differently?
Craig F.
Rushville, IN

I think Dr. Rose should have made this suggestion to Deena away from the patient. It would have put Deena in a less awkward position. Also, Dr. Rose should have backed up Deena and told Edwin he needs to pay for the glasses. If Edwin is belligerent, ask him to pay 50 percent of the glasses cost. That should cover the costs of making them.

Nikki P.
Gunbarrel, CO

Look at the actual frame and lens cost to the practice; how much did the practice lose? Charging him that amount may be a good compromise and no one is at a total loss. An outstanding optical bill should never block ongoing medical care. If Dr. Rose had already discussed his options with him and both agreed CareCredit was the best solution, Dr. Rose should have told Deena immediately and assisted Deena in the conversation the whole time to ensure a smoother conversation.

Barry S.
Seaford, NY

Opticians should become more aware of just what their added value is to an “eyeglass product.” If you subtract this added value, you come close to what online would charge for the same materials. So, if the buyer/patient isn’t receiving this added value, why are they being billed for it? It seems to me that the years of control we’ve had over the eyewear transaction have imbued most offices with a sense of entitlement to the buyer’s dollars. If nothing else, the situation described speaks volumes for separating the eyewear purchase from eye-based medical care. In any event, hope they enjoyed punishing the client for not picking up the eyewear and paying in full for it. I think we can all agree that the 50 percent deposit more than covers the lab costs for the lenses, while the frame can…well, you know. Think about it.

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Gigette H.
Washington, NJ

My office has patients pay in full prior to processing any order of eyewear. We have a cancellation policy and a restocking fee policy. We state on the back of our superbill all the policies regarding payments, refunds and warranties. We also research deductibles, copays and coinsurances extensively prior to the patient’s visit. My staff and the patient know the patient’s financial responsibility at the time of service. Because of the work done pre-appointment, we have almost no billing afterwards. After years in practice, I try to be prepared for most eventualities.

Craig L.
Coconut Creek, FL

After six months of not picking them up I would donate the lenses and write the rest off. You did not lose money. The deposit covered the cost of the lenses and the patient has nothing. I would then note on his chart in the future that he must pay in full upfront from now on. I would never bring it up to the patient. They lost $250 and have nothing. The patient is always first, and the profit comes from good optical karma!

Greg K.
Dodge City, KS

The situation should have been handled within 90 days of the original order unless the extenuating circumstances had been explained to the office. Multiple attempts to communicate with the patient should have been made. If no response, then the frame could have been returned to inventory to reduce the patient’s balance and the “custom” lens cost remains the patient’s responsibility. We bend over backwards to accommodate a patient’s needs and situations, but with no explanation from the patient, at the 120-150 day mark the account should have been turned over to collections. At that point, all future orders are paid in full on the day of the order.

Lynnette G.
San Mateo, CA

I too would’ve taken the patient to a quiet place and reviewed the charges. 1. Offer to remove the monthly service fees, allowing the patient to pay the original balance with CareCredit. 2. With his Rx change, depending upon the new Rx, offer to redo the lenses to a single vision lens in an Rx for whichever works best for the patient (no additional cost/SV lenses are relatively inexpensive). 3. Sign the patient up for CareCredit and wrap the remaining balance up into CareCredit. 4. Meet with the doctor prior to the visit and discuss what she was doing/set up a protocol with regards to handling patients. There is no right answer and communication is key.

Stewart G.
San Francisco, CA

First of all, the practitioner should never have come in and changed the conversation without consulting his office manager first. It completely undercut the OMs credibility. Alternative forms of payment should be presented in a unified manner. Given how long the glasses had not been paid for, there should have been rules within the practice to handle this: It should have been sent to collection and/or a dismissal letter sent so that the review should be superfluous. This way, the bad review could have been discussed online because the patient is no longer a patient of the practice. If none of this is an option, treat the unpaid bill as bad debt and ask for all payments in full in advance of any services being rendered to the patient.

Judy C.
Virginia Beach, VA

How badly do you want to retain the patient? 1. Update the Rx in the glasses he ordered two years ago. 2. Put everything including his medical treatment into CareCredit minus the late fees. 3. No one should ever withhold medical treatment. Ever. 4. Happy patients tell everyone they know how happy they are. 5. Unhappy patients tell anyone who will listen how unhappy they are. The practice has all the control in this case.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. eyecare business serving the public, you’re invited to join the INVISION Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting eyecare professionals. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Natalie Taylor is an experienced optometry practice manager for Advanced Care Vision Network and a consultant with Taylor Vision. Learn more at tayloreye.com.

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