Zero-interest loan program gives SSM patients options

August 1, 2014

Corey Bowman is a sales representative who believes firmly in his product. Bowman, 29, is a team leader in customer service at SSM Health Care in St. Louis. In March, the system began offering interest-free payment plans through Commerce Bank, a Midwestern regional company, to help patients cover deductibles, co-pays and other medical expenses, and Bowman was among the early applicants.

Bowman's father, Jerry Bowman, is on dialysis. Father and son underwent tests in April to determine whether they were a kidney donor match.

The fee for the younger Bowman's tests, after health insurance benefits, was about $1,000. Bowman applied for and obtained a three-year payment plan, which operates like an interest-free loan. Now, Bowman makes a monthly payment of about $28 to Commerce Bank.

Bowman enjoyed no special status as an SSM employee. He applied for the zero-interest loan as any other patient would. "SSM and Commerce made the process easy," he said. "I can tell patients that for a fact."

Unfortunately, Bowman wasn't a match for the transplant. His father, who is 60, continues to undergo renal dialysis.

Bowman said he would have taken the donor medical match tests even if the loan program had been unavailable. Nevertheless, "being able to spread out my payments, rather than come up with a lump sum, is very beneficial," he said. "The bank made it very easy to apply. I personally can attest that this is a valuable program."

The program is designed to help the increasing number of patients who have trouble paying for the rising deductibles and co-pays required by their health-insurance plans, said Samantha Champagnie, corporate director of patient financial operations. Champagnie said patient out-of-pocket costs that used to average $500 only a few years ago are now often $2,500 or more.

"That's unaffordable for many people, and this is a trend that is only going to continue," she said. "We wanted a creative solution to help patients balance their out-of-pocket expenses and their budgets."

Champagnie said the program is available to patients whether they have insurance or not. She said SSM did not design the program specifically because of the Affordable Care Act. But with a federal study showing that most people insured through ACA-spawned insurance exchanges choose the "silver plan," with its $2,500 annual deductible for individuals, an increasing number of insured patients will need this sort of gap financing, she said.

St. Louis-based SSM is working with Commerce partly because it has branches in three of the four states in which SSM operates 18 hospitals. Champagnie said SSM representatives help patients enroll in the loan program with Commerce. SSM has hospitals and other facilities in Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Commerce does not have branches in Wisconsin.

If a patient doesn't live near a Commerce branch, he or she still can apply and obtain a payment plan.

Champagnie said patients are able to borrow as much as $50,000. Patients who borrow more than $7,000 can repay over five years; loans of lesser amounts are to be paid off in three years. Patients pay no interest or service fees — the monthly payment is calculated by dividing the loan amount by the months of repayment.

SSM pays Commerce a global service fee for the program.

Since March, Champagnie said, more than 2,400 SSM patients have enrolled. She said the average loan amount is $1,800. As of late June, the highest loan was for $20,000.

Patients make their monthly payments directly to the bank. If a patient becomes delinquent, Commerce closes the account and transfers it to SSM, which works out a revised payment schedule for the patient. As a last resort, an account would go to a collection agency for recovery.

Champagnie said the zero-interest program is available to all patients, including those who are eligible for financial assistance. There is no ceiling on income for patients who are interested in applying. SSM has not changed its financial standards for determining eligibility for charity care.

Champagnie said patient response has been overwhelmingly good.

"We are sure this was the right thing to do," she said. "We have had patients cry for joy on the phone. They feel it gives them their dignity back by providing more options to repaying their medical debts. I believe this program really speaks to the mission of SSM to provide access to high-quality care and to show special concern for those who are poor, underinsured and uninsured."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.