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HIStalk Interviews Patrice Wolfe, CEO, AGS Health

March 23, 2020 Interviews No Comments

Patrice Wolfe, MBA is CEO of AGS Health of Newark, NJ.

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Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been in the healthcare industry for over 25 years, with the majority of that in the HCIT space, including revenue cycle management. RCM is an exciting and growing field, and if you do it right, you’re improving the financial health of provider organizations, which frees them up to redeploy resources that can be focused on patient care.

AGS Health is a revenue cycle outsourcing company that provides A/R management, coding, and analytics services to major health systems and physician practices, as well as to billing and EMR vendors. In 2019, we managed over $35 billion in A/R and coded over 25 million charts. We have 6,200 employees in the US and India, which is pretty amazing for a company that was founded in 2011.

What is the business environment of RCM and how has it changed over the years?

It has changed a lot. Given the penetration of EMRs and associated technologies, a lot of the manual effort that was needed to validate patient eligibility, submit claims, post payments, and reconcile remittances is now automated. In the past, the vast majority of A/R was payer-related, which just isn’t the case today. High deductibles are here to stay and providers are struggling to capture every dollar. 

The basic mission of RCM hasn’t changed – to optimize the speed, accuracy, and efficiency with which revenue is maximized and collected.

The revenue cycle is very complex. Too much so. Different departments frequently handle different parts of the cycle, which means there may be no real coordinated strategy for RCM. There are a few things I find promising, though. The industry is trying to bring as much as possible up to the front of the revenue cycle, such as advanced eligibility verification and patient liability estimation prior to the patient showing up for care. It’s a lot easier to collect a payment when you’ve told the patient in advance what they will owe.

Robotic process automation, or RPA, is eliminating low-value work from the rev cycle and driving greater efficiency. I think we eliminated about 80 FTEs of low-value work last year just using RPA, and our teams are doing more rewarding work as a result. A lot more can be done on this front.

Areas like coding used to be focused on maximizing the completeness and accuracy of clinical information for billing purposes.  Today, we’re seeing new and innovative uses for this data, which include risk-based analysis, provider scorecards, benchmarking, and analytics.

RCM is highly influenced by payer policies. I sit on the board of a large payer, so I see the challenges on that side of the equation also. There are a few friction points that I think are problematic for both parties. First, claim denials have been rising, which creates a lot of work for providers and vendors like us. Second, prior authorizations are labor intensive and remain stubbornly manual. We have a lot of work to do as an industry to resolve these issues.

What effects on health system RCM do you expect to see from coronavirus-related economic slowdown?

We are seeing the impact of COVID-19 in many areas right now. This is so hard for the provider community. In the last week, providers are canceling all elective procedures. That has an immediate impact on revenue, not to mention access to care. Some payers are shutting down call centers and stating that claims payment may be delayed. We use the call centers on behalf of our customers to resolve payment denials and delays, verify eligibility, and check on claim status. Limiting our ability to do that impacts revenue, not to mention the resultant lag in overall claims payment.

Providers are experiencing workforce shortages due to staff illness, inability to work from home, or reprioritization of work tasks. This is going to get worse. We are trying to help as much as we can from a staff augmentation perspective.

The administration approved some Section 1135 waivers to improve access to care, such as wider use of telemedicine, and allowing Critical Access Hospitals to have more than 25 beds. That’s great, but it’s confusing to both providers and payers as to how to operationalize these changes and ensure accurate reimbursement. I fear this is going to be a big mess.

Also, while new coding changes have been approved for COVID-19, it will take a while for provider systems to be updated with these coding updates, which translates into increased coding denials.

What are the benefits and challenges involved with managing a highly educated, technically savvy global workforce of six thousand people?

You forgot millennial. The vast majority of our team in India is under 30 years old, which is really interesting. I get asked for a lot of selfies when I’m there.

Regarding the benefits, as you mentioned, our entire team in India is college educated. They are open-minded, comfortable with change, and very ambitious. I do monthly live chats with our various locations and I hold quarterly focus groups when I’m in India. I get many questions about career progression and company strategy. These are people who can see themselves as leaders and problem solvers, which is exactly what we need in such a high-growth company.

In addition, almost 50% of our overall workforce is women, which is exciting for me.

The challenges of a large, global workforce really are around communication, training, and career paths. We are high growth, so things are changing all the time. That means I have to over-communicate on many topics and via many different methods, as do the other leaders.

We hired over 2,000 people in 2019, so grounding them in our business is critical. We have an incredible hiring and training infrastructure that can adapt rapidly as we add new clinical specialties and customer types.

I mention career paths because, as I said earlier, we have a lot of young, ambitious people who want to grow within AGS Health. We promote through the ranks as a regular practice. In addition, several people from our India team have relocated to the US to serve in customer-facing roles with amazing success. It’s been a win-win and we plan on expanding this program.

What I’ve come to realize is that, while revenue cycle outsourcing sometimes leads to job loss in the local community, we’re frequently doing RCM work that has been put to the side in hopes that someone in the organization will get to it eventually. For example, we do a lot of small-balance collections, maybe accounts of less than $1,000 or even less than $200. It makes financial sense to hand those to us because our labor costs are so much lower. These activities generate real cash for the organization that otherwise might have been written off. There are other examples like this around credit balance resolution and denial management.

Another challenge we’ve faced in the US is the labor shortage in both rural and urban areas, where things like clinical coding expertise may be hard to find or highly competitive. Even with computer-assisted coding tools, trained coders are still a critical part of the RCM process. In this part of our work, we are supplementing the teams our customers already have in place.

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