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Utah’s largest hospital chain sticking with embattled debt collector
Utah » Intermountain says its work with Accretive Health won’t mirror Minnesota chain’s.

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Intermountain does this now, seeking payment when patients register for surgery or enter the hospital emergency department, though only after they’ve been assessed, said Johnson.

Still, exposure of Accretive’s practices drew unflattering media attention, causing the company’s stock to tumble and a California congressman to call for a federal investigation.

At a glance

Who is Accretive Health?

Accretive Health was started in 2003 by the New York private equity fund Accretive, LLC, which has a controversial history in Minnesota related to the arbitration and collection of debts. It is based in Chicago.

Its CEO is Mary A. Tolan and its board chairman is J. Michael Cline, founder of the Accretive equity fund.

Intermountain Healthcare in 2011

22 » hospitals, 185 clinics in Utah and Idaho

135,953 » hospital admissions

463,872 » ER visits

2,563,492 » clinic visits

$3.57 » billion net revenue

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Fairview severed ties with Accretive last month, a decision "made in the best interests of our patients and our organization," said a spokesman Ryan Davenport.

Prior to that, Accretive had full authority over its billing. The company was empowered to fire and reassign Fairview employees, who were required to use a computer system nicknamed "Blue Balls," which tracks whether patients pay their bills, according to Swanson’s report.

Emergency room "financial counselors" were taught to ask for payment at the bedside in ways that led patients to think they would be denied treatment without it, the report claimed.

If the patient didn’t have a credit card handy, employees asked for a checkbook or encouraged the patient to borrow from a family member. They were told to remind patients that if the bill goes to collections, it can affect their credit.

"Fairview emergency workers got the message that if they didn’t collect money in the ER, they would be fired," the report said.

Registration staff ran reports on incoming patients, flagging those with past due balances, including breast cancer patients and moms in labor and delivery. This prompted some Fairview doctors to complain to the Minnesota AG that patients were being chased away and forgoing treatment.

Swanson accuses Accretive of breaching patient privacy laws after an employee last year lost an un-encrypted laptop containing 23,500 patient records.

The arrangement was profitable. Accretive generated about $826 million in revenue in 2011, 12 percent, or $100 million, of which came from Fairview, Swanson says.

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It earned those profits, in part, by downsizing staff and outsourcing work to "centers of excellence" in India and Pakistan, she alleges.

"As a for-profit, private corporation, Accretive may boost its stock value by off-shoring jobs to India. It is troubling, however, for Accretive to do so with the assets of a Minnesota charitable organization."

In a pass through arrangement, Accretive managed payroll for Fairview’s billing employees. It shared in the money that was earned by boosting collections or cutting costs.

Johnson said there are currently no plans to outsource any of Intermountain’s 1,600 revenue management workers, but says the relationship with Accretive is evolving.

Intermountain is in the driver’s seat and must approve any change in policy or practice, he said. The health system’s charity care policy will remain intact. Once the hospital decides a bill has become bad debt, it will be passed to other vendors and Accretive will not have a role in that collecting, he said.

Johnson, though, said confidentiality agreements forbid him from explaining how money will flow between Intermountain and Accretive. The Center of Excellence they build will be owned and operated by Accretive, he stressed.

Still, some employees are nervous and worry that Intermountain is drifting from its non-profit roots, said an employee who fears being fired and The Tribune agreed not to identify.


Twitter: @kirstendstewart

How is it going?

Patients, share your story. How have Intermountain’s bill collectors treated you? What is the health system’s track record and how is it changing? Email kstewart @sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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