Health care payments need better integration before going omnichannel

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Retailers and restaurants have vigorously supported the ability to pay anywhere from any device, but that technology has not taken hold in more institutional businesses such as health care, education and government.

It's not for lack of trying from developers, fintechs and investors chasing a wide-open playing field.

"Many fintechs and companies are focused on trying to open up integrated payments in those areas, because there is very little payment automation in healthcare or education," said Steve Mott, principal of BetterBuyDesign, a Stamford, Conn.-based payments consulting firm.

That lack of automation in payments makes deeper integration much more difficult. In health care alone, there are 100 to 200 different systems that do the practice management piece, with different apps and protocols to do the payments piece, and mostly with card, according to Mott.

Private equity firm Waud Capital Partners is backing the launch of Sphere, a fintech that's built a platform that's designed to integrate with any practice management platform, finally breaking the barriers to deeper automation.

The new payment platform results from Shere's acquisitions of TrustCommerce and Anovia Payments. Sphere has combined the integration capabilities and cloud-based omnichannel experience of the companies to target business sectors that lack modern payment options, or to advance markets like parking and transportation that have dabbled in rudimentary payments technology.

"We enable the technology that can be embedded within the practice management software at a physician office on the high end of the market with programs like Epic or GE Health, or on the lower end from a smaller company," said Sphere CEO Steve Rizzuto. "Either way, there is an interface and we embed our technology and it creates a portal for patients to go in and look at medical records but also make a payment."

Patients are clamoring for streamlined payment options, including one-click mobile or online options, when paying their physicians or a hospital, according to research from InstaMed, a company seeking to smooth the medical payments process.

The creation of a company like Nashville, Tenn.-based Sphere is becoming common as technology investors combine companies that address different parts of market niches that are also stuck in the past when it comes to payments.

Other plays include Flywire, which acquired OnPlan to expand its payment options for cross-border tuition payments at universities as well as expanding into health care payments.

Sphere executives feel the timing is perfect to launch their new brand on a customer database that already includes the TrustCommerce and Anovia Payments clients.

Patients usually pay for health care with a credit or debit card, or receive a bill later in the mail. Sphere wants to convince physicians and hospitals to use online pay-in-advance services, mobile payments or via e-mail.

"Health care providers don't like mailing a bill and waiting for a response," said Andrew Rueff, executive chairman of Sphere. "That often results in a 60- to 90-day wait, if the patient pays. Sometimes it could take several months to pay."

Addressing multiple touch points for payments also applies to education, Rueff said, adding Sphere sells an omnichannel gateway to support interaction with the student through a mobile device or online. "There are tuition payments, book stores, food services, parking lots all accepting payments in advance or as recurring payments," Rueff said.

A cloud-hosted omnichannel payments system can also provide security and keep institutions out of PCI scope, Rueff said.

Sphere launched in October, but it has just started its branding and marketing conversion from the TrustCommerce and Anovia Payments acquisitions.

"If you have the capability to integrate, you probably have an open field to run with it in these sectors," BetterBuyDesign's Mott said. "I hope [Sphere] can do it at scale, because being able to automate payments in an integrated way makes a lot of sense from the issuers' standpoint as well."

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