The Future Is Now

Jill Sandino

Jill Sandino, a medical assistant and SEIU UHW member, measures 17-week-old Logan Hosley.

How every UBT can get ready for health care reform

Richmond Medical Center Pediatrics knew that “pretty good” wasn’t good enough in 2012. The department’s service scores hovered stubbornly around 88 percent. Its unit-based team members knew they could do better and distinguish themselves from competitors.

“We wanted to give KP members that ‘wow’ experience,” says manager Cynthia Ramirez—to make them glad they chose Kaiser Permanente and to give them reasons to stay with us.

So the UBT, knowing the system can be frustrating when you’re unfamiliar with it, created a project that would take the mystery out of the process. In doing so, the team also hoped to debunk any idea that KP is an impersonal health care factory. 

“We need to not just look at our work as a job all the time,” says union co-lead Jill Sandino, a medical assistant and SEIU UHW member. “It’s kindness from the gate.”

Time for our A game

With major elements of the Affordable Care Act going into effect this fall, focusing on a member’s total experience with KP has never been more important. After years of preparation, how we respond to the challenges and opportunities will make a big difference for our organization and for our members. And every UBT can get ready by figuring out where its processes aren’t the best—or are merely OK—and getting to work on improving them.

“For the first time in our history, how well we do fundamental business operations—billing, copayment collection, customer service—has the potential to overshadow the health care we deliver in driving overall member satisfaction,” especially because more members will have plans with deductibles, says Larry Sirowy, KP’s executive director for market research. Sirowy and others have been working to figure out the characteristics of the people who will become members through health care reform—and what we need to do to be able to provide all our members, new and old, with the care they need.

Without a crystal ball, no one can say exactly how Kaiser Permanente will be affected. But one thing everyone is anticipating is an influx of new members—and we know that if new members stay with us after the first year, we’re likely to keep them as members in future years. So in the months ahead, we need our A game, and we need to bring it to every aspect of our work.

The good news is UBTs are already working—and seeing results—on a variety of projects that will improve our ability to provide new members with excellent service and care as well as reaffirm current members’ decision to choose KP.

Richmond’s "wow" experience

To ensure new patients have a topnotch visit, for example, the Richmond Pediatrics UBT created a workflow that involves everyone. It starts with the receptionist spotting the new member flag in KP HealthConnect and giving the person a customized welcome. In the exam room, the medical assistant provides a welcome packet—offered in Spanish or English—with basic department information, critical phone numbers and instructions on how to sign up for Department manager Ramirez comes by to introduce herself and share her business card.

The physician caps it off by welcoming the patient to his or her practice and touting the great teamwork in the department.

“This reinforces that they’re in good hands, and we’re a family and know everyone by name,” Ramirez says.

The new workflow is making a difference: The department’s service scores increased from 88.3 percent satisfaction at year-end 2012 to 95.1 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

“Starting with a small Rapid Improvement Model project has made a big impact,” Ramirez says. “It gives us the momentum to be ready for whatever comes next.”

Unexpected consequences

In January, Georgia’s Douglasville Medical Office got a dress rehearsal in receiving a flood of new patients when the local city government signed on with KP.

“I hadn’t realized how large this group was,” says pharmacist manager Adaora Oraefo, until, at the end of 2012, “we started to see a dip in our service scores.”

Douglasville is a tiny clinic, so patients are supposed to check in with the pharmacist to confirm their prescription before heading to the lab for tests. But often, no one told them that—so when they did get to the pharmacy, they had to wait 10 or 15 minutes while the prescription was filled.

Not surprisingly, since members assumed their prescription would be ready when they were done with their lab work, complaints starting coming in.

“I would step out in the waiting room and talk them through the process,” Oraefo says. “I saw an opportunity to improve.”

The pharmacy began working with the nurses to make sure they explained the clinic’s routine to patients. The facility expanded on the work by holding open house events for new members.

“They were so much happier, especially when they were able to see me as their pharmacy manager,” Oraefo says. “It made a difference. People were thinking, ‘These people are taking the time to show us what’s going on.’”

Understanding KP’s offerings

One element of preparing for health care reform is becoming educated about the law and its provisions, so we can help members understand the changes, too.

Since 2010, Colorado’s patient registration associates (PRAs) have seen an increase in the number of patients with deductible health plans, which often have significant payments associated with them. More experienced with KP’s HMO plans, which feature the familiar copay arrangement, the PRAs didn’t feel confident talking to members about deductible plans.

Since the Health Insurance Marketplaces that open this fall are expected to bring even more members with those types of plans, the PRAs made a proactive decision to educate themselves.
“While there will be a number of different types of plans, the concepts don’t change,” says patient registration manager Jeffrey Clayman. “Improving their confidence in their ability to talk about these plans was a natural fit.”

The regional PRA UBT held a training that included actors playing the patients and members, so the staff could practice realistic encounters. The clerks gained experience in explaining the costs and how the plans work—and they also got practice in how to respond when someone gets upset at an unexpected bill.

“We tried to learn how to be more aware of how we communicate to patients,” says PRA Diana Wagner, a member of SEIU Local 105 and the regional UBT’s union co-lead. “I treat patients the way I would want to be treated—which is businesslike. But the service quality person made a point, that you need to treat patients the way they want to be treated.”

Tim Kieschnick, a Kaiser Permanente executive consultant who has been working to understand how our member demographics will be changing, says that currently, many members with deductible plans don’t realize they have a deductible.
“They’ll pay a $25 copay,” he says, “and then four months later, they get a bill for $1,300”—and they’re shocked.

 “The goal should be no surprises,” he says. “How you do that is something we’re all trying to figure out.”

Sustaining improvement

The other challenge, of course, is to sustain a successful change.

With the many demands of a busy Pediatrics department, co-leads Ramirez and Sandino admit it can be easy to forget to use the new member workflow. To keep the momentum going, Ramirez provides a reminder in the team’s morning huddle if a few days have passed without seeing a new patient.

And Sandino says she tries to “be like a cheerleader.”

“We need members to have our jobs,” Sandino says. “Health care reform is a reality—it’s beyond KP, and it’s beyond the unions. I was never a cheerleader, but I’m a cheerleader at Kaiser around this.”

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