Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Health Alliance takes all day to answer call




BY TIM BONFIELD
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A patient can get heart surgery at Christ Hospital in less than four hours. But on Tuesday, it took longer than that to get through to the hospital's customer service line.

        Forest Park resident Margi Christos has problems with an outstanding $95 bill for services provided for her 20-year-old daughter, Nicole.

        So, at 9:45 a.m., Mrs. Christos called 585-7600 — the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati's patient accounting customer service line. She got an automated message offering five options, such as how to pay by credit card or apply for financial assistance. She pressed “5” to “speak with a representative from Christ Hospital.”

        Then she waited.

        Mrs. Christos happens to be staying at home with medical problems of her own. In recent months, she said she has waited 45 minutes or longer to get hospital people on the line to deal with paperwork issues. This time, she decided to hang on the phone.

        So she waited some more. At around noon, she got up to fix lunch. The recorded voice mail kept saying, “We'll be right with you.”

        While callers are on hold, the voice mail system offers the option of pressing “1” to leave a voice mail message for a service representative who it said would call back.

        Mrs. Christos tried that. But the message box was reported as full. She couldn't leave a message.

        She kept waiting, leaving the phone nearby while she read a book. After four hours and 15 minutes of canned piano music and recorded messages, Mrs. Christos had enough. She hung up.

        At 2:50 p.m., the Enquirer tried to reach a human being at the Christ Hospital customer service line. Normally, the customer service office closes at 4:30 p.m., but staff is supposed to stay late to answer calls that are still “in the queue.”

        By 5:10 p.m., still no luck.

        “All representatives are still assisting other callers,” the recording repeats. “Please hold and your call will be answered as soon as a representative is available.”

        At about 3:30 p.m., using a different phone, the Enquirer called the Health Alliance media relations department to find out why nobody was answering the customer service line.

        At 4:25 p.m., a spokeswoman confirmed there is a problem with the billing department.

        Health Alliance spokeswoman Gail Myers said the customer service lines have been swamped for months as staff deals with a massive backlog of billing paperwork. The backlog was created by delays in sending out bills as the Health Alliance installed four new comput er systems in the past 10 months to deal with Y2K bugs.

        “The backlog actually peaked a couple months ago,” Ms. Myers said.

        Still, problems continue. The alliance recently sent 50,000 accounts to four outside billing companies while it works internally on another 50,000 bills.

        The Health Alliance is trying to hire nine more workers, to help answer phones. Twenty-six people are assigned to answer phones now.

        Not many people, however, want to be the human spending all day on the other end of the line with frustrated customers like Mrs. Christos.

        “Part of the problem has been finding folks willing to do these jobs,” Ms. Myers said. “We sincerely apologize for it.”

        Mrs. Christos got a call from Christ Hospital patient relations staff at about 4:10 p.m. The person said the insurance company still hadn't been billed for the service, but will be.

        “It was good that they called,” Mrs. Christos said. “But who knows what will happen from there?”

       



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