Hospital’s ills may be due to bills

San Mateo County’s public hospital is teetering on the financial edge — a situation that’s likely to grow more precarious with state budget cuts this year.

But, unlike other nearby county hospitals, the San Mateo Medical Center offers a 50 percent discount on bills for self-pay clients if payment is made within 30 days.

The hospital also lacks the ability to accept same-day payments from self-pay patients for many services.

The Examiner’s investigation into the payment practices of the hospital comes after recent news that the facility is facing a $5 million budget shortfall.

Hospital officials also said they will have to start turning some patients away to make up for the shortfall.

The center treats hundreds of thousands of patients per year in its primary hospital and a dozen clinics around the county.

What’s worse is that budget issues for the center may be more serious in the next fiscal year due to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent proposal of 10 percent cuts in Medi-Cal reimbursements. About half of the center’s funding comes from Medi-Cal, hospital spokesman Dave Hook said.

Despite the grim financial outlook, the hospital has informed uninsured patients on their bills since 2005 that if they promptly pay half of their bill, the other half will be forgiven.

Other nearby public hospitals do not offer such a generous discount. San Francisco General Hospital offers a 5 percent discount for prompt payment, but that is not referenced on the bill, said Marti Paschal, the hospital’s director of administrative operations.

The Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System does not have a standard discount, said Joy Alexiou, the agency’s public information officer.

The logic behind the policy, Hook said, is that the discounts will encourage patients to pay their bills on a more consistent basis.

As for the hospital’s inability to accept same-day payments, Hook said self-pay patients are able to pay for services like blood tests the day after they receive them.

Hook said the hospital receives only a couple of complaints about same-day payments a year, but the hospital will look into whether a fix for the problem is possible.

At least one of the hospital’s patients, a nurse from San Bruno who asked not to be identified, said such a change would make sense. She said she was bewildered when she wasn’t able to pay her bill that day after recent blood work.

“No wonder they’re in trouble,” she said. “I’m not a business expert, but this just doesn’t look like good business to me.”

kworth@examiner.com

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