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Oxymoron of the month: Outsourced accountability

By: Dan Vogt
07.20.20

Read this if your company is considering outsourced information technology services.

For management, it’s the perennial question: Keep things in-house or outsource?

For management, it’s the perennial question: Keep things in-house or outsource? Most companies or organizations have outsourcing opportunities, from revenue cycle to payment processing to IT security. When deciding whether to outsource, you weigh the trade-offs and benefits by considering variables such as cost, internal expertise, cross coverage, and organizational risk.

In IT services, outsourcing may win out as technology becomes more complex. Maintaining expertise and depth for all the IT components in an environment can be resource-intensive.

Outsourced solutions allow IT teams to shift some of their focus from maintaining infrastructure to getting more value out of existing systems, increasing data analytics, and better linking technology to business objectives. The same can be applied to revenue cycle outsourcing, shifting the focus from getting clean bills out and cash coming in, to looking at the financial health of the organization, analyzing service lines, patient experience, or advancing projects.  

Once you’ve decided, there’s another question you need to ask
Lost sometimes in the discussion of whether to use outsourced services is how. Even after you’ve done your due diligence and chosen a great vendor, you need to stay involved. It can be easy to think, “Vendor XYZ is monitoring our servers or our days in AR, so we should be all set. I can stop worrying at night about our system reliability or our cash flow.” Not true.

You may be outsourcing a component of your technology environment or collections, but you are not outsourcing the accountability for it—from an internal administrative standpoint or (in many cases) from a legal standpoint.

Beware of a false state of confidence
No matter how clear the expectations and rules of engagement with your vendor at the onset of a partnership, circumstances can change—regulatory updates, technology advancements, and old-fashioned vendor neglect. In hiring the vendor, you are accountable for oversight of the partnership. Be actively engaged in the ongoing execution of the services. Also, periodically revisit the contract, make sure the vendor is following all terms, and confirm (with an outside audit, when appropriate) that you are getting the services you need.

Take, for example, server monitoring, which applies to every organization or company, large or small, with data on a server. When a managed service vendor wants to contract with you to provide monitoring services, the vendor’s salesperson will likely assure you that you need not worry about the stability of your server infrastructure, that the monitoring will catch issues before they occur, and that any issues that do arise will be resolved before the end user is impacted. Ideally, this is true, but you need to confirm.

Here’s how to stay involved with your vendor
Ask lots of questions. There’s never a question too small. Here are samples of how precisely you should drill down:

  • What metrics will be monitored, specifically?
  • Why do the metrics being monitored matter to our own business objectives?
  • What thresholds must be met to notify us or produce an alert?
  • What does exceeding a threshold mean to our business?
  • Who on our team will be notified if an alert is warranted?
  • What corrective action will be taken?

Ask uncomfortable questions
Being willing to ask challenging questions of your vendors, even when you are not an expert, is critical. You may feel uncomfortable but asking vendors to explain something to you in terms you understand is very reasonable. They’re the experts; you’re not expected to already understand every detail or you wouldn’t have needed to hire them. It’s their job to explain it to you. Without asking these questions, you may end up with a fairly generic solution that does produce a service or monitor something, but not necessarily all the things you need.

Ask obvious questions
You don’t want anything to slip by simply because you or the vendor took it for granted. It is common to assume that more is being done by a vendor than actually is. By asking even obvious questions, you can avoid this trap. All too often we conduct an IT assessment and are told that a vendor is providing a service, only to discover that the tasks are not happening as expected.

You are accountable for your whole team—in-house and outsourced members
An outsourced solution is an extension of your team. Taking an active and engaged role in an outsourcing partnership remains consistent with your management responsibilities. At the end of the day, management is responsible for achieving business objectives and mission. Regularly check in to make sure that the vendor stays focused on that same mission.

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More and more emphasis is being put on cybersecurity by companies of all sizes. Whether it’s the news headlines of notable IT incidents, greater emphasis on the value of data, or the monetization of certain types of attacks, an increasing amount of energy and money is going towards security. Security has the attention of leadership and the board and it is not going away. One of the biggest risks to and vulnerabilities of any organization’s security continues to be its people. Innovative approaches and new technology can reduce risk but they still don’t prevent the damage that can be inflicted by an employee simply opening an attachment or following a link. This is more likely to happen than you may think.

Technology also doesn’t prepare a management team for how to handle the IT response, communication effort, and workforce management required during and after an event. Technology doesn’t lessen the operational impact that your organization will feel when, not if, you experience an event.

So let’s examine the human and operational side of cybersecurity. Below are three factors you should address to reduce risk and prepare your organization for an event:

  1. People: Create and maintain a vigilant workforce
    Ask yourself, “How prepared is our workforce when it comes to security threats and protecting our data? How likely would it be for one of our team members to click on a link or open an attachment that appear to be from our CFO? Would our team members look closely enough at the email address and notice that the organization name is different by one letter?”
     

    According to the 2016 Verizon Data Breach Report, 30% of phishing messages were opened by the target across all campaigns and 12% went on to click on the attachment or link.

    Phishing email attacks directed at your company through your team range from very obvious to extremely believable. Some attempts are sent widely and are looking for just one person to click, while others are extremely targeted and deliberate. In either case, it is vital that each employee takes enough time to realize that the email request is unusual. Perhaps there are strange typos in the request or it is odd the CFO is emailing while on vacation. That moment your employees take to pause and decide whether to click on the link/attachment could mean the difference between experiencing an event or not.

    So how do you create and cultivate this type of thought process in your workforce? Lots of education and awareness efforts. This goes beyond just an annual in-service training on HIPAA. It may include education sessions, emails with tips and tricks, posters describing the risk, and also exercises to test your workforce against phishing and security exploits. It also takes leadership embracing security as a strategic imperative and leading the organization to take it seriously. Once you have these efforts in place, you can create culture change to build and maintain an environment where an employee is not embarrassed to check with the CFO’s office to see if they really did send an email from Bora Bora.
  1. Plan: Implement a disaster recovery and incident response plan 
    Through the years, disaster recovery plans have been the usual response. Mostly, the emphasis has been on recovering data after a non-security IT event, often discussed in context of a fire, power loss, or hardware failure. Increasingly, cyber-attacks are creeping into the forefront of planning efforts. The challenge with cyber-events is that they are murkier to understand – and harder for leadership – to assist with.

    It’s easier to understand the concept of a fire destroying your server room and the plan entailing acquiring new equipment, recovering data from backup, restoring operations, having good downtime procedures, and communicating the restoration efforts along the way. What is much more challenging is if the event begins with a suspicion by employees, customers, or vendors who believe their data has been stolen without any conclusive information that your company is the originating point of the data loss. How do you take action if you know very little about the situation? What do you communicate if you are not sure what to say? It is this level of uncertainty that makes it so difficult. Do you have a plan in place for how to respond to an incident? Here are some questions to consider:
     
    1. How will we communicate internally with our staff about the incident?
    2. How will we communicate with our clients? Our patients? Our community?
    3. When should we call our insurance company? Our attorney?
    4. Is reception prepared to describe what is going on if someone visits our office?
    5. Do we have the technical expertise to diagnose the issue?
    6. Do we have set protocols in place for when to bring our systems off-line and are our downtime procedures ready to use?
    7. When the press gets wind of the situation, who will communicate with them and what will we share?
    8. If our telephone system and network is taken offline, how we will we communicate with our leadership team and workforce?

By starting to ask these questions, you can ascertain how ready you may, or may not be, for a cyber-attack when it comes.

  1. Practice: Prepare your team with table top exercises  
    Given the complexity and diversity of the threats people are encountering today, no single written plan can account for all of the possible combinations of cyber-attacks. A plan can give guidance, set communication protocols, and structure your approach to your response. But by conducting exercises against hypothetical situations, you can test your plan, identify weaknesses in the plan, and also provide your leadership team with insight and experience – before it counts.

    A table top exercise entails one team member (perhaps from IT or from an outside firm) coming up with a hypothetical situation and a series of facts and clues about the situation that are given to your leadership team over time. Your team then implements the existing plans to respond to the incident and make decisions. There are no right or wrong answers in this scenario. Rather, the goal is to practice the decision-making and response process to determine where improvements are needed.

    Maybe you run an exercise and realize that you have not communicated to your staff that no mention of the event should be shared by employees on social media. Maybe the exercise makes you realize that the network administrator who is on vacation at the time is the only one who knows how to log onto the firewall. You might identify specific gaps that are lacking in your cybersecurity coverage. There is much to learn that can help you prepare for the real thing.

As you know, there are many different threats and risks facing organizations. Some are from inside an organization while others come from outside. Simply throwing additional technology at the problem will not sufficiently address the risks. While your people continue to be one of the biggest threats, they can also be one of your biggest assets, in both preventing issues from occurring and then responding quickly and appropriately when they do. Remember focus on your People, Your Plan, and Your Practice.

Article
The three P's of improving your company's cybersecurity soft skills

Read this if you are an IT Leader, CFO, COO, or other C-suite leader responsible for selecting a new system.

Vendor demonstrations are an important milestone in the vendor selection process. Demonstrations allow you to validate what a vendor’s software is capable of, evaluate the usability with your own eyes, and confirm the fit to your organization’s objectives.

Our client found itself in a situation where, after many months of work developing requirements, issuing a request for proposal, and reviewing vendor proposals they were ready to conduct demonstrations. Despite a governor’s executive order for social distancing and limitations on non-essential travel, our client needed to conduct demonstrations to achieve an important project milestone. This presented an opportunity to help them plan, test, and facilitate remote vendor demonstrations with great success.

This brief case study shares some of the key success factors we found in conducting remote demonstrations and some lessons learned after they were complete.

  1. Prepare 
    Establish a clear agenda, schedule, script, and plan in advance of the demonstrations. This helps keep everyone coordinated throughout the demos.
  2. Test
    It is important to test the vendor’s video conference solution from all locations prior to the demonstrations. We tested with both vendors a week ahead of demos.
  3. Establish Ground Rules
    Establishing ground rules allows the meetings to go better, be more efficient, and stay on time. For example, is a moment of silence a consensus to move on or must you wait for someone to unmute their line to verbally confirm to proceed.
  4. Have clear roles by location
    Clear roles help to facilitate the demonstration. Designated time keepers, scribes, and local facilitators help the demonstration go smoothly, and decreases communication issues.
  5. Be close to the microphone
    Essential common sense, but when you can’t see everyone, loud, clear questions and answers make the demos more effective.
  6. Ask vendors to build in pauses to allow for questions
    Since vendors may not be able to see a hand raised, asking vendors to build specific pauses into their demonstrations allows space for questions to be asked easily.
  7. Do a virtual debrief 
    At the end of each vendor demonstration we had our own videoconferencing meeting set up to facilitate a virtual debrief. This allowed us to capture the evaluation notes of the day prior to the next demo. Planning these in advance and having them on people’s calendars made joining the meetings quick and seamless.

Observations and other lessons learned

Following the remote demonstrations we identified a few observations and lessons learned:

  1. Visibility was better
    By not having everyone crowded into one room, people were able to see the screen and the vendor’s software clearly.
  2. Different virtual platforms required orientation
    We wanted vendors to use the tools they were accustomed to using. This led to us using different products for different demonstrations. This was not insurmountable, but required orientation to get used to their tools at the start of each demo.
  3. Video helped debriefing
    Given the quick planning we did not have video capability from all locations for our virtual debrief. It was helpful to see the people sharing their comments following each demonstration. We will plan for video capabilities at all locations next time.
  4. Having a set order for people to provide feedback helped
    During the first debriefing, we established a set order for people to speak and share their thoughts. This limited talking over each other and allowed everyone to hear the thoughts of their peers clearly.
  5. Be patient with slowness
    For the most part we had successful demos with limited slowness. There were a couple points where slowness was encountered. We remained patient, adjusted the schedule, and in the worst case, added an extra break for people.
  6. Staying engaged takes effort
    Sitting all day on a remote demo and paying attention took effort to stay engaged. Building in specific times for Q&A, calling on people by name, and designing it so it wasn’t eight hours straight of presentation helped with engagement.

Restricted travel in response to COVID-19 has led our clients and our teams to be creative and agile in achieving objectives. The remote demonstrations proved highly successful, accomplished the goals, and met our client’s critical timing milestone. At the end of four days of demos, our client commented that the remote demos were perhaps even better than if they had been conducted onsite. As we look at the long view, we may find that clients prefer remote demonstrations even when social distancing and travel restrictions are lifted.

Article
Social distancing case study: Hosting remote vendor demonstrations

Texting has become a simple, convenient, and entrenched component of our everyday lives. We use it with family, friends, coworkers—and clients. My wife and I text to coordinate day care pickup and drop off of our kids every day. It is a quick and easy alternative to our large, and sometimes overwhelming, volume of email.

And with that convenience comes the temptation for clinicians, care teams, and healthcare providers to communicate sensitive content via text in the workplace. The ability to take a photograph of a wound and share with a colleague for a consult is convenient and effective. The number of patients who want to text a non-urgent question to their providers is also growing, particularly with younger patient populations. Population health teams who want to better engage patients may see texting as an easy format to achieve that.

The problem? Texting is not a secure communication method. The native SMS (short message service) used by many phones, including iPhones (at times), is not encrypted, and messages are sent in plain text over cellular networks. SMS messages are vulnerable to “man-in-the-middle” attacks, in which a third-party eavesdrops or potentially manipulates a conversation. The native message format of iPhones has security risks, too. And when a text message contains protected patient information or images, these risks become significant.

On December 28, 2017 CMS released clarification on text messaging. The highlights:

  • Texting is permissible between care team members if accomplished through a secure platform.
  • Texting of orders: prohibited.
  • Computerized Physician Order Entry (CPOE) is the preferred method of provider order entry.

The first bullet allows some consideration of text messaging but with an important caveat: you must use a secure platform. The last two bullets steer providers to using their EHR systems.

What should you do if you find yourself in a position where text messaging has crept into your culture?

  • Establish a policy to govern the use of text messaging and update your mobile device policy.
  • Determine whether you will implement (and allow your care team to use) a secure texting platform or prohibit texting all together.
  • Consider how secure texting impacts your policies and procedures related to data retention, discovery, and the legal health record. 
  • Educate your patients about secure messaging available on your patient portal.
  • Assess your organization’s usage and level of risk.

  • Stop using unsecure text messaging for patient related communications.

For more information, contact me.

Related content:

Watch our video on adopting technology for success
Read Dan's article on soft cybersecurity skills.

Article
Texting in healthcare? Best be secure.

Read this is you are a director or manager at a Health and Human Services agency in charge of modernizing your state's Health and Human Services systems. 

When states start to look at outdated Health and Human Services systems like Eligibility Systems or Medicaid Enterprise Systems, they spend a lot of time on strategic planning efforts and addressing technology deficiencies that set the direction for their agencies. While they pay a lot of attention to the technology aspects of the work, they often overlook others. Here are three to pay attention to: 

  1. Business process improvement
  2. Organization development
  3. Organizational change management

Including these important steps in strategic planning often improves the likelihood of an implementation of Health and Human Service systems that provide the fully intended value or benefit to the citizen they help serve. When planning major system improvements, agencies need to have the courage to ask other critical questions that, when answered, will help guarantee greater success upon implementation of modernized system.

Don’t forget, it’s not only about new technology—it’s about gaining efficiencies in your business processes, structuring your organization in a manner that supports business process improvements, and helping the people in your organization and external stakeholders accept change.  

Business process improvement 

When thinking about improving business processes, a major consideration is to identify what processes can be improved to save time and money, and deliver services to those in need faster. When organizations experience inefficiencies in their business processes, more often than not the underlying processes and systems are at fault, not the people. Determining which processes require improvement can be challenging. However, analyzing your business processes is a key factor in strategic planning, understanding the challenges in existing processes and their underlying causes, and developing solutions to eliminate or mitigate those causes are essential to business process improvement.

Once you pinpoint areas of process improvement, you can move forward with reviewing your organization, classifying needs for potential organization development, and begin developing requirements for the change your organization needs.

Organization development

An ideal organizational structure fully aligns with the mission, vision, values, goals, and strategy of an organization. One question to ask when considering the need for organization development is, “What does your organization need to look like to support your state’s to-be vision?” Answering this question can provide a roadmap that helps you achieve:

  1. Improved outcomes for vulnerable populations, such as those receiving Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, or other Health and Human Services benefits 
  2. Positive impacts on social determinants of health in the state
  3. Significant cost savings through a more leveraged workforce and consolidated offices with related fixed expenses—and turning focus to organizational change management

Organization development does not stop at reviewing an organization’s structure. It should include reviewing job design, cultural changes, training systems, team design, and human resource systems. Organizational change is inherent in organization development, which involves integration of a change management strategy. When working through organization development, consideration of the need for organizational change should be included in both resource development and as part of the cultural shift.

Organizational change management

Diverging from the norm can be an intimidating prospect for many people. Within your organization, you likely have diverse team members who have different perspectives about change. Some team members will be willing to accept change easily, some will see the positive outcomes from change, but have reservations about learning a new way of approaching their jobs, and there will be others who are completely resistant to change. 

Successful organizational change management happens by allowing team members to understand why the organization needs to change. Leaders can help staff gain this understanding by explaining the urgency for change that might include:

  • Aging technology: Outdated systems sometimes have difficulty transmitting data or completing simple automated tasks.
  • Outdated processes: “Because we’ve always done it this way” is a red flag, and a good reason to examine processes and possibly help alleviate stressors created by day-to-day tasks. It might also allow your organization to take care of some vital projects that had been neglected because before there wasn’t time to address them as a result of outdated processes taking longer than necessary.
  • Barriers to efficiency: Duplicative processes caused by lack of communication between departments within the organization, refusal to change, or lack of training can all lead to less efficiency.

To help remove stakeholder resistance to change and increase excitement (and adoption) around new initiatives, you must make constant communication and training an integral component of your strategic plan. 

Investing in business process improvement, organization development, and organizational change management will help your state obtain the intended value and benefits from technology investments and most importantly, better serve citizens in need. 

Does your organization have interest in learning more about how to help obtain the fully intended value and benefits from your technology investments? Contact our Health and Human Services consulting team to talk about how you can incorporate business process improvement, organization development, and organizational change management activities into your strategic planning efforts.

Article
People and processes: Planning health and human services IT systems modernization to improve outcomes

If you received PPP funds, read on.

The Treasury has released new information regarding Paycheck Program Protection forgiveness. 

Based on IRS guidance, if you intend to apply for forgiveness and have a reasonable expectation it will be granted, the expenses used to support forgiveness will not be permitted as a deduction in 2020. It is unclear whether this guidance would apply if a taxpayer is undecided with regard to their forgiveness application at year end. Here is what we know so far.

The CARES Act included provisions that stated PPP loan forgiveness would not be considered taxable income under the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”). The CARES Act specifically provides the forgiveness is not taxable income under IRC Section 61.

However, the IRS has issued the following guidance on this matter, which relates to the expenses paid with the PPP loan funds.

Notice 2020-32, states IRC Section 265(a)(1) applies to disallow expenses that were included on and supported a taxpayer’s successful PPP loan forgiveness application. 

In general, this section states NO deductions are permitted for expenses that are directly attributable to tax exempt income. 

The IRS seems to have concluded, in this Notice, the PPP loan forgiveness is tax exempt income. Therefore, the salary and occupancy costs used to support forgiveness, under current IRS guidance, will not be tax deductible.

Unanswered questions

This notice, while somewhat informative, raises many unanswered questions. For example, what are the tax consequences if a PPP loan is forgiven in 2021 and the expenses supporting the forgiveness were incurred in 2020? Could the forgiveness be construed as something other than tax exempt income?

Revenue Ruling 2020-27 attempts to answer some of these questions and provides additional guidance with regard to IRS expectations. The Ruling seems to indicate there are two possible tax positions relative to expenses that qualify PPP loans for forgiveness:

  • First, the loan forgiveness could be construed as tax exempt income and, pursuant to IRC Section 265 expenses directly attributable to the exempt income are not deductible.
  • Second, loan forgiveness could be construed as the reimbursement of certain expenses, and not as tax exempt income. Under the reimbursement approach the IRS has stated if you intend to apply for forgiveness and reasonably expect to receive forgiveness the reimbursed expenses are not deductible, even if forgiveness is obtained in the following tax year. This position seems to be supported by several tax controversies which were litigated in favor of the IRS. 

Some taxpayers had anticipated using a rule known as the tax benefit rule to deduct expense in 2020 and report a recovery (income) in 2021 when the loan is forgiven. It appears the IRS is not willing to accept this filing position.

We are hoping Congress will revisit this issue and consider statutory changes which allow for the deduction of expenses. Some taxpayers are planning to extend their income tax returns, taking a wait and see approach, with the hopes Congress will amend the statutes and allow for a deduction.

Under current law, it appears the salary, interest, rent used to support a forgiveness application will not be permitted as a tax deduction on your 2020 tax returns. This could result in a significant change in your 2020 taxable income.

Final considerations

For estimated tax payment purposes, we believe it would be reasonable to attribute the lost deductions to the quarter in which you made your final determination to file for forgiveness. This could mitigate any underpayment of estimated income tax penalties. 

If you are making safe harbor quarter estimates and/or have sufficient withholdings any incremental tax would be due with your return on April 15, 2021. Generally, the IRS safe harbor is to pay 110% of prior year tax during the current year to be penalty proof.

If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact us. We’re here to help.

COVID-19 business support

We will continue to post updates as we uncover them. Let us know if you have questions. For more information regarding the Paycheck Protection Program, the CARES Act, or other COVID-19 resources, see our COVID-19 Resource Center.

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Update: Treasury issues a revenue ruling and revenue procedure regarding PPP forgiveness

CYSHCN programs have new care coordination standards―how does your agency measure up?

On October 15, 2020, the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) released new care coordination standards for Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN) programs. The National Care Coordination Standards supplement the National Standards for Systems of Care, helping to ensure that children and youth with special health care needs receive the high-quality care coordination needed to address their specific health conditions.

The standards also set requirements for screening, identification, and assessment, a comprehensive shared plan of care, coordinated team-based communication, development of child and family empowerment skills, a well-trained care coordination workforce, and smooth care transitions. 

What do the standards mean for CYSHCN programs

The National Care Coordination Standards are more than guidelines for CYSHCN programs; aligning with the standards can lead to operational efficiencies, greater program capacity, and improved health outcomes. The standards can serve as a lens for continuous improvement, highlighting where programs can make changes that reduce the burden on care coordinators and program administrators.

However, striving to meet the standards can be challenging for many programs—as the standards develop and evolve over time, many programs struggle to keep up with the work required to update processes and retrain staff. Assessing a CYSHCN program’s processes and procedures takes time and resources that many state agencies do not have available. Despite the challenge, when state agencies are the most strapped is often when making change is the most needed. A shrinking public health workforce and growing population of CYSHCN means smooth processes are essential. To take steps towards National Care Coordination Standards alignment, BerryDunn recommends the following approach: 

A proven methodology for national standards alignment

There are many ways you can align with the standards. Here are three areas to focus on that can help you guide your agency to successful alignment. 

  1. Know your program
    It can be easy for processes to deteriorate over time. Process mapping is an effective way to shed light on current work flows and begin to determine holes in the processes. Conducting fact-finding sessions to map out exactly how your program functions can help pinpoint areas of strength―and areas where there is room for improvement.
  2. Compare to the national standards
    Identify the gaps with a cross-walk of your program’s current procedures with the National Care Coordination Standards. We assess your alignment through a gap analysis of the process, highlighting how your program lines up with the new standards.
  3. Adopt the changes and reap the benefits
    Process redesign can help implement the standards, and even small adjustments to processes can lead to better outcomes. Additionally, you can deploy proven change management methodologies programs that ease staff into new processes to produce real results.

Meeting national standards doesn’t have to be complicated. Our team partners with state public health agencies, helping to meet best practices without adding additional burden to program staff. We can help you take the moving pieces and complex tasks and funnel them into a streamlined process that gives your state’s children and youth the best care coordination. 

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Using process redesign to align with new CYSHCN standards