Today’s non-clinical spotlight focuses on Connie Sakellaropoulos, a non-clinical occupational therapist who started out as a director of rehab, then became a compliance officer, and has now started a really cool platform (Independent Therapist Alliance) for independent contractors (1099s) who wish to earn more money, build non-clinical skills, and operate outside of workplace politics.
What is your full name and title at your current job?
I’m also the Director of Rehab & Corporate Compliance at LifeCare of Florida, LLC, where I work as non-clinical independent contractor. It’s an outpatient facility, and I serve in a dual role as the officer at this organization, managing a team of 70+ therapists.
Where did you go to OT school?
I received my Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy from Nova Southeastern University and graduated…ahem…quite a while ago (specifically in 1999).
What did you do when you first finished school?
After graduation, I worked for two different companies; one was working in a school setting part-time and the second was working in an outpatient therapy setting that focused primarily on injured workers and chronic pain management.
What did you enjoy about your early roles? What didn’t you enjoy?
I enjoyed the diversity and the opportunity to gain experience, which is so critical when you are a new graduate. The hard part was juggling the demands of the two jobs.
Around the same time, I fell in love and married my (still) wonderful husband and became pregnant. I realized that the physical demands of working with children (many of whom had significant behavioral issues) were too much, and I left this role and focused only on my outpatient/adult work.
When did you realize you wanted to do something non-clinical, and why?
I’m not sure I realized I “wanted” to do something different, but my role as a non-clinical therapist was something that evolved. The company that I first worked for was small and was seeking accreditation under CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) at the time.
When you work for a small or private organization, everyone tends to wear multiple hats. Learning the processes, developing standards and protocols that met these requirements, and training team members were all necessities, and I found I had a knack for “the business of rehab.”
So, where did you go after you realized you liked rehab business?
My path to non-clinical work started there and just has never stopped. Over the years, I’ve been successfully responsible for:
- Multiple accreditation surveys, including CARF, CORF, and OPT
- Developing Corporate Compliance Programs, HIPAA Compliance Programs, and CEMP (Comprehensive Emergency Management Planning)
- Responding to multiple claims appeals and Medicare probes (which are now nicely called “Targeted Probes & Education”)
What are you doing these days?
These days, the work is even better (busier, but better). At LifeCare, I have been blessed to work for many years with two wonderful co-workers: Alexia Larson and Elisha Becker. Elisha and Lexi are not therapists, but have worked within the industry, managing hundreds of PT/OT/SLP therapists over the years.
About one year ago, we decided to start a new business venture we launched in September, 2019.
Tell us about the business, please!
It’s called Independent Therapist Alliance (ITA).
What is the Independent Therapist Alliance?
Hopefully, you will go to our website (www.itaexcels.org) to learn more about us!
In a nutshell, the ITA is “a national association that unites independent contract therapists and small private practices to learn to succeed at the business of rehab.”
So cool! Where did you come up with the idea?
Over the years, we have worked with literally hundreds of therapists, ranging from brand-new graduates to seasoned professionals. Yet, regardless of how long the therapists had been in practice, we saw a consistent knowledge gap when it came to understanding the business side of healthcare and working as an independent contractor.
Schools teach clinical skills, but there is so much more that is needed in order to be successful.
As an occupational therapist and as the director of a team that includes PTs, OTs and SLPs, I also struggled with the fact that while we unite in day-to-day practice as rehab professionals, there was no single association that united therapists across disciplines. The Independent Therapist Alliance was our solution.
Who are your members (in other words, who would benefit from joining ITA)?
The Independent Therapist Alliance is for:
- Therapists who work as Independent Contractors as clinical practitioners
- Non-clinical therapists who want to learn the business of rehab to build non-clinical skills
- Therapists who want to bill Medicare directly (or those who own private therapy practices)
What does the Independent Therapist Alliance offer?
We built the ITA to meet the needs of independent therapists. We offer CEU-accredited learning including our signature course, “How to Be Your Own Boss.”
We’ve also secured massive member-only discounts on multiple products and services including AAA, Office Depot, therapy supplies, clinical CEUs, and even The Non-Clinical PT’s course, “Non-Clinical 101.”
We also provide instant access to current industry news, and we offer support in the form of a social platform and blog, so that therapists can make new friends. This is something that many independent contractors struggle with in the field.
Our tagline is “you’re going to love it here,” and it’s true!
The ITA offers these benefits through individual memberships to therapists. We also provide consult services to therapists who own or are interested in starting their own practice.
What excites you most about the Independent Therapist Alliance?
Such a hard question to answer, but we’re excited to join therapists across disciplines in one association. Also, we are not just professionals but mothers, wives, and friends—and we believe in the value of a community and ethical corporate structure.
We have always wanted to do something tangible to “make the world a better place,” so—because it is our own business (and therefore we could!)—we incorporated this belief into our business structure through our “Give Back Program.”
This is a program in which, each quarter, members choose and then vote on a charity or cause to which we will donate a portion of our proceeds. While we have poured our energy into creating the ITA, this is where our heart is.
Can you tell us more about the team behind ITA|Excels?
Whatever work you choose, it is important to know your strengths and also know where you need help. Elisha, Lexi and I are all co-founders of the ITA. We each have—through training and experience—unique areas of expertise that collectively gave us the framework for the Independent Therapist Alliance.
Elisha has a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services. She started her career in social work (working with kids) and moved into a case management position with LifeCare, where she has worked for almost 15 years. Her title is “Admissions Coordinator” and she is responsible for the training, development, and management of our therapy team, which is typically 70+ therapists. She also handles all patient admissions and patient assignments, and serves as our “therapists’ therapist.” Customer service is a part of Elisha’s everyday life, and she knows that success of a business depends on exceptional patient care. To achieve this, therapists must be vested in the company, understand what is expected, and have the tools needed to succeed. Elisha is the one that makes this happen–first at LifeCare and now at the ITA.
Lexi holds a Master’s Degree in Accounting and Finance, and has more than 25 years of experience in healthcare operations. As part of the senior management team, she is responsible for developing and monitoring protocols that ensure that day-to-day fiscal practices are successful in protecting the business—while still allowing for sustainable growth. Alexia has provided direct education and training for billing personnel on multiple payers, including Medicare, private insurance, and workers’ compensation. She was also responsible for the evaluation, selection, design, and implementation of a new EMR system that was rolled out to a team of 75 therapists in 30 days.
How do you get CEU credit for taking these courses? Are these courses CEU-approved for all states, or just Florida?
We started in Florida (our home state), but also because the following states recognize course approval in Florida: AZ, DC, DE, GA, HI, ID, KY, MO, MI, MT, NC, ND, OR, PA, RI, SC, UT, VT, VA, and WY.
We are in the process of obtaining our certification as a continuing education provider for APTA, AOTA and ASHA, so our courses will qualify for CEUs in every state by next year.
For members who successfully complete a course (or courses) from our platform, we report the credit to states that participate with CEBroker within 24 hours. Members will also receive a Certificate of Course Completion so they can self-submit for CE approval (we help with this, of course), as most states accept other courses with appropriate documentation to verify course content and objectives.
What’s next for you?
1. I will be presenting at the Florida Occupational Therapy Association Conference in a few weeks. It’s a course entitled “Maintenance Therapy – A BluePrint for Success”
2. ITA will have a booth at the conference.
3. I just joined the Advisory Board at Keiser University to assist in developing student curriculum.
4. I will be presenting a lecture to graduating classes of PTA/OTA students at both Keiser and Concorde: “It’s Not Just a Job. It’s Your Business”. If it’s successful, the goal is to roll out to other universities.
Do you have any special advice for other therapists who want to follow in your footsteps?
Absolutely! First and foremost, learn all that you can and connect with like-minded professionals. In today’s connected world, it will be easier than you think.
This platform is a great way to find the knowledge, mentors, and inspiration you need to make a change. Practical step-by-step help is right here at ITA. Also know that success won’t come without some bumps in the road, but it can be found.
Never give up on your dream of what your career and future should look like…(virtual hug gets inserted right here) ☺
What are a few surprising things about the “business of rehab” that you think everyone should know?
When a therapist works as an independent contractor (1099), it’s important to remember that it’s not just a job—it’s your own business. I’m surprised how often therapists leave literally thousands of dollars unclaimed at tax time either because they did not know the expenses would qualify as deductions or because they did not track the expenses at the time (think mileage and supplies).
Getting organized and good record keeping are something you need to consider every day if you are going to make the most of a 1099 career.
What do you think would be the best way for people interested in compliance to start building skills and getting experience?
The starting point is to READ the regulatory guidelines that apply to your organization or field of practice. This will help anyone begin to understand the scope of information that is required to work in this type of role.
Another great resource is the Health Care Compliance Association, which offers certification programs in compliance. This certification will help open doors and careers for therapists interested in moving into non-clinical roles in compliance.
What are some of the courses you plan to add to your platform soon? How often will you be adding courses?
We are constantly working on courses and new courses are scheduled to be added about every two or three months.
The next course that has just been submitted for CE Approval is a two hour course entitled “Maintenance Therapy – A Blueprint for Success,” which provides a step by step “blueprint” to help clinicians understand Medicare’s No Improvement Standard and identify the right patients for maintenance therapy. The course also showcases sample documentation to help therapists provide defensible wording needed for the skilled care part.
Also, I share my “secret sauce” on how to respond to an ADR (Additional Development Request) or TPE (Targeted Probe and Educate) in case a therapist’s claims are selected for review. I have used the process that will be outlined in this course successfully for the past nine years and have maintained a constant error rate of < 10% (actually .05% last year!)
What are the biggest challenges to launching a new business? What are the most enjoyable parts?
The most enjoyable part? Seeing your baby steps take you forward and now that we have launched, connecting with so many great people!
The not so great part? My mother has a famous line (well, famous in my house) and always says, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and that’s the biggest challenge to launching a new business.
Even with a great idea, I think it is impossible for one person to know everything they need to start and launch a new business venture. For example, when we started ITA, I knew absolutely nothing about website design and what the terms AMS (Association Management System), LMS (Learning Management System), SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model), or SEO (Search Engine Optimization) even meant. Now I can rattle off the terms with ease.
But, in the learning curve, we connected with what turned out to be not-so-great resources and we lost a lot of time and money in the process.
Disappointment and frustration often come when your expectations do not meet your reality, so expect to make mistakes during the launch process and remember that these times help you to learn what is best—and what is not—for your business.
Do you have any bits of advice from this experience?
I do have a particularly helpful piece of advice. When we started ITA, we connected with weVenture, a program through a local university that is funded by the Small Business Administration. WeVenture is specifically designed for woman-owned businesses, and they were a fabulous resource for developing a marketing plan and connecting with community resources that support small businesses. I would recommend that anyone interested in starting a small business search their local community for similar resources.
Thanks for your insight, Connie!
Editor’s Note: I’ve heard a lot of grumbling over our need to take our profession into our own hands, and I agree that it’s time for us to consider working for ourselves, rather than feeling stuck with shady companies with questionable ethics.
ITA is a brand-new platform with a lot of opportunity on many levels, and I’m very excited and proud to be an early member of the alliance.
I am excited that we now have a community where we can connect and collaborate with other PT/OT/SLP professionals (especially ones who want to work for themselves, rather than for companies), and we can earn CEUs related to the business side of rehab. (Remember, for now, only some states accept the CEUs, but this should change in 2020!)
ITA Excels already has a few cool non-clinical courses. I took the one called “How to be Your Own Boss” and learned a lot of new info, even though I’ve been running my own biz for over two years! There’s great info about taxes, business structures, liability coverage, and more. If you do decide to join this platform, keep in mind it’s fairly new. Please see the question above regarding CEU approvals. By next year, ITA should be approved in all states, but if you’re only joining for CEUs right now, please consider whether you’re in the states above, willing to submit for your own CEUs, and the following courses interest you:
- Be Your Own Boss (I really enjoyed this one)
- Customer Service & Marketing
- Ethics, HIPAA, and Mandated Reporting
The nice thing is they’ll always be adding more courses, and the entire platform is designed to help you work for yourself. So if you’ve dreamed of doing some “free agent” type of clinical work while you build a non-clinical career, this platform is a great guide to help you be protected, profitable, and supported as you make that transition!
♥- If you do decide to join this community, you can save 20% with code NCPT -♥