Balancing Multiple Credentials

Vol. 11 •Issue 19 • Page 16-20
Balancing Multiple Credentials

Keeping up the credentials that testify to your multiple talents can be expensive. Here are some tips on spending your money wisely.

Her lament was met with sympathy. “I pay to keep my registered health information technician (RHIT), my certified coding specialist (CCS) and soon my certified tumor registrar (CTR),” she posted on the bulletin board at “And on top of that, I pay to be a member of the National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA), my state registry association and my state health information management (HIM) association. I can’t afford to pay the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).”

She is clearly not alone. With both AHIMA and the American Association for Medical Transcription (AAMT) recently raising their membership dues, the cost of being a credentialed and active HIM professional is rising. But sacrificing credentials or professional association memberships may not be the best way to make ends meet.

Here are some tips to help make balancing multiple credentials a little easier.

• Evaluate the monetary value of your credential. It’s tempting to think that the most economical thing to do is cut back on memberships or let a few of your credentials lapse. But that may be a false economy. As salary surveys conducted by ADVANCE and the major professional organizations have shown, credentialed professionals make more money than their non-credentialed peers–hands down. So while you may save a few hundred dollars a year by dropping your credential, you may be missing out on thousands of dollars in added income.

If, however, you hold a credential that has absolutely no bearing on your current position, dropping it may be the best option. This is not a decision to be taken lightly, however. Let’s say, for example, that you have decided to give up a career coding in an acute care setting to become a home-based medical transcriptionist. You won’t need your CCS anymore, right? Probably not.

But what if you want to supplement your income by doing some coding on the side? Or provide a value-added service to your customers by assigning codes along with producing documentation? Or make a move to that at-home coding company that is offering you more money? Your CCS suddenly becomes relevant again.

If you’ve let your CCS lapse, you will be required to retake your exam. If you’ve also dropped your membership to AHIMA, this will cost you $295. And because you’ve been out of the coding realm for so long, you will likely have to invest several hundred more dollars to update your coding knowledge and to purchase study guides. In the end, regaining your credential could end up costing you almost as much as retaining it would have.

The bottom line is, if you decide to drop your credential, make absolutely sure that your career shift is a long-term or permanent one.

• Weigh investment vs. return. Similarly, letting a professional association membership lapse may seem like a surefire way to save some cash. But before deciding to reallocate your dues money, first make sure that you can still maintain your credential if you no longer belong. At the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC), for example, “You must be a member in good standing to hold a credential,” reported AAPC member Susan Garrison, CPC, CPC-H, CPAR, CCS-P.

Membership in your professional organization also entitles you to certain perks that can help offset the cost of dues. The AAPC annual dues, for example, are $85. One of the benefits of membership is a discount on books, seminars and other products. As every coder knows, this is a rapidly changing field and continuing education and updated resources are essential to coding compliance (as well as credential maintenance). Chances are that the discounts you will receive will help defray, equal or even exceed, the cost of your dues.

Before quitting an organization, calculate the amount of money you spent last year on publications, seminars, etc. Then calculate how much it would have cost without your member discount.

You may be surprised how much more money you’d lose by letting your membership lapse.

• Seek out bargains and discounts. Keep in mind also that you don’t always have to pay full price for your membership.

“We charge a nominal fee for students,” stated Linda Kloss, MA, RHIA, executive vice president and CEO. “We also have special categories for those who are retired or no longer in active practice.”

Check your association’s Web site to see if you are eligible for any special rates. In some states, if you are a cancer registrar, you can look into having your state association fees paid entirely.

“Some state registry associations, when you pass your certification test, will give you a free membership,” stated Linda Mulvihill, RHIT, CTR, current president of NCRA. “The North Carolina association not only does that, but they also will rebate you $50 to help defray the cost of taking your certification exam.”

NCRA also helps defray the cost of continuing education (CE) in a big way by offering an annual scholarship competition.

“It’s open to active members and all they have to do is write an essay on a subject chosen by the advisory committee,” stated Melissa Pearson, CTR, an eastern regional director for NCRA. “The winner receives registration, airfare and three nights at the hotel where the conference is being held.”

All the major organizations do their best to offer continuing education that is affordable. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seeking it out. AHIMA members, for example, can take advantage of a variety of audioseminars. “For one fee, you can have as many ‘attendees’ as you can fit in the room,” stated Kloss. “The more people attend, the cheaper it is.”

The Medical Transcription Certification Commission (MTCC), the credentialing organization affiliated with AAMT, has recently begun emphasizing expanded opportunities for low cost CEs. CMTs can obtain credits for watching television shows such as “Trauma: Life in the ER” or reading articles online and submitting a brief summary.

“We’ve become more liberal over the last few years because there are so many opportunities to learn, even through just watching television,” stated Ann Donnelly, CMT, chair of AAMT’s Certification Committee.

The more familiar you are with your association’s fee schedule and the type of CE credits it accepts, the savvier a consumer you can be. A little research can save a lot of money.

• Budget. A little planning goes a long way, too. If, like many people, you tend to wait until the last minute then desperately try to cram in as many CE credits as possible, you’re going to be forced to take what’s available. That means that not only may much of it be irrelevant to you, but that you will have to pay whatever price necessary to get them. That’s not being a smart consumer.

To get the maximum “bang for your buck,” start thinking about your next CE cycle as soon as the last one has ended. Aim to acquire a certain number of credits per month or per quarter. This approach will help you get some genuine, relevant continuing education and will help spread the cost over time so you are not faced with a sudden jolt to your budget.

The only time when getting CE credits by bulk may be advantageous is when attending your annual meeting. “That can be expensive, but you always know at least a year in advance when and where the conference is going to be,” stated AAMT’s Donnelly. “You can start planning ahead and budgeting. Many of us combine this trip with a family vacation to defray the cost a little.”

• Double up. You don’t have to go to every association’s annual meeting to maintain all your credentials. In fact, one general topic meeting may offer CE credits in all the fields you specialize in.

“The AAPC has no stipulation that you can only use a resource (seminar, periodical, book, etc.) for the AAPC credential and not for another organization’s CE credits,” stated Garrison. “There are AAPC pre-approved credits, but you can submit CEs from other sources for approval.” Each of the other major associations has a similar policy.

This is another instance where planning and budgeting are essential. With a little forethought and research, it is possible to attend one reasonably priced seminar and walk away with CEs to apply toward all your credentials.

• Get sponsored. The best way to save money on association membership and CE credits is by finding someone else to pay for them. A recent spot poll on revealed that approximately 34 percent of respondents had both their association dues and continuing education picked up by their employer. Twenty-nine percent received just CE reimbursement and 7 percent received just paid dues. Unfortunately, 30 percent received nothing at all.

If your employer is not helping with the cost of your professional maintenance, it may simply be because you haven’t asked–or because you haven’t presented a compelling argument.

“You need to demonstrate to the employer the value you provide,” said AHIMA’s Kloss. “You need to build the argument for the quality of the information you are receiving and its importance to your organization.”

If, for example, you are one of the 29 percent who receive only CE credits, you may want to explain how your membership can pay for itself in discounted seminars and resources.

You may also want to emphasize that it is cheaper to invest in compliance from the outset than to face the penalties later. “It can be very costly to a health care employer if their employees are not kept abreast of the latest health care laws and regulations,” stated NCRA’s Pierson.

“By belonging to professional organizations and attending workshops, you also get the opportunity to network with people from other facilities,” noted Mulvihill. “That is a great way for an institution to learn how to better its processes and make improvements in the facility.”

In the end, however, the question of how much to spend on professional membership and continuing education really depends on how much you want to invest in yourself.

“It’s a commitment to educate yourself and to be the best you can be in your chosen field,” concluded Donnelly of AAMT.

Gretchen Berry is an associate editor at ADVANCE.