Mail sorting: tedious but necessary task

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By Mike Norbutcovered practice management issues during 2002-06. Posted Feb. 23, 2004.

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Unfortunately, the mail you receive at your office isn't quite like what you may get at home. It's not as easy to distinguish bills and checks from junk mail, so you almost have to open every envelope and see what's inside.

Opening and sorting business mail could be one of the most tedious jobs in the office, but it's also one of the most important commonsense duties in a practice, health care consultants said. While not a top priority for physicians, the mail should at least be on their radar screens, consultants said. Even the slightest bit of oversight can help doctors keep track of their accounts receivable and prevent any fraud or theft from happening.

"If you're never checking your accounts receivable, you may never know if a payment has come in," said Patrick Baker, a consultant with Professional Management of Milwaukee Inc., a firm based in Wauwatosa, Wis.

Baker described a situation where a long-time employee devised a way to cash some checks from the practice, mainly because no one checked up on the deposits. In small offices, the oversight often becomes the physician's responsibility.

"My concern is the person who is making deposits is the same person who is opening the mail," Baker said. "Sometimes, the best way is to have one person stamp the checks and another go through the deposits."

Services also are emerging that enable practices to remove staff members from the picture almost entirely. Not only are many practices filing claims electronically, but they also have set up lock boxes at local banks, where checks are collected and deposited for them.

"A lock box gives some accounting controls as well as it gets the money in the bank faster," said Reuben Allen, president of Allen Consulting in Wilmington, N.C. "In a one- or two-doctor practice, it's not a huge savings because you can't cut staffing out, but it makes their time more efficient. It takes a little temptation out, too."

Some banks offer more than just lock boxes. For example, Stillwater, Okla.-based Southwest Bancorp Inc. runs a business mail processing service that includes sorting mail, depositing checks and scanning explanations of benefits so client practices can review them on a secure Web site.

The information is indexed by several different categories, including physician, insurer and date, to make it easier to reference later if needed, said Lori Nix, senior vice president of treasure management services for SNB Bank of Wichita, a Kansas subsidiary of Southwest Bancorp.

The bank charges a $100 maintenance fee, 28 cents per piece of mail processed and 8 cents per item scanned. If a piece of mail that is opened does not contain a check, the practice isn't charged, Nix said.

Mail volume and total charges vary by the practice, but even some smaller groups have seen benefits from using the service. Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine at Cypress, a three-physician orthopedic group in Wichita, has saved up to one-fourth of its overall mail costs since it started using the service last year, said Jennifer Ale-Ebrahim, clinic coordinator. The practice spends about $400 a month on the service, but it saves nearly three hours a day in mail-related duties for the staff. Office efficiency and collections have increased as well, she said.

"The biggest thing is it's freed up our accounting people, so they can spend more time collecting and following up," Ale-Ebrahim said.

The service has helped on an even grander scale for Family MedCenters PA, a 12-physician, six-location group located around Wichita. The family physician group was receiving 1,000 pieces of mail a day, so outsourcing its mail processing has enabled the practice to continue operations without adding staff, said Teri Kersting, RN, the group's administrator.

"They still send us the paper," she said. "We keep it for 30 days and then it goes into the shredder."

If only all mail sorting was that easy.

Mike Norbut covered practice management issues during 2002-06.

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