The health plan two-step
Most folks have heard of the Texas two-step. The Texas two-step is danced with two quick steps and two slow steps.
The health plan two-step is even simpler. It is one step forward and one step backward. The latest demonstration comes courtesy of Aetna.
In February 2006, Aetna agreed to pay the full allowed amount for a standard evaluation and management (E/M) service (e.g., a problem-oriented office visit), when billed with modifier 25 and a preventive E/M service. In essence, Aetna agreed to pay the full allowed amount for both services. This was progressive compared to other payers, like CIGNA and UnitedHealthcare, who only pay the acute service at a rate of 50 percent when done at the same encounter as a preventive medicine visit. Of course, some payers completely bundle the acute visit into the preventive visit in that scenario, resulting in payment only for the preventive service.
Anyway, Aetna took the second step of the health plan two-step earlier this month. Effective Aug. 15, 2009, Aetna began applying concurrency rules when two E/M services are billed and allowed with modifier 25, meaning each additional service is paid at less than the full amount. Aetna considers the preventive medicine visit to be the primary service and payable at 100 percent of the allowed amount; it considers the eligible office, or problem-focused, E/M to be the secondary service payable at 50 percent of the allowed amount. Apparently, there are others, like Aetna, who also giveth and taketh away.
The only upside that I can find in this particular dance is that Aetna's policy is now consistent with others' policies, so you have one less exception to remember. On the other hand, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." I guess Aetna thinks a lot of it, too.
The trouble with consultations
In a rather surprising move, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) included in the proposed rule on the 2010 Medicare physician fee schedule a proposal to remove codes for consultations from the Medicare fee schedule. Physicians instead would report the office/outpatient, hospital, or nursing facility evaluation and management (E/M) visit codes as appropriate, and these codes would be awarded higher relative value units (RVUs) in the fee schedule, resulting in potentially higher payment. Whether these increased payments would make up for the elimination of the higher-paying consultation codes likely depends on each individual physician’s mix of consults and office/hospital visits and the percentage of established patients versus new patients.
Some physicians won't like this, as it redistributes payment for E/M services among all physicians. These physicians state that their work is always worth more money because of the additional education and training they have related to specific medical problems. What they may be missing is that Medicare is offering a carrot, an increase in RVUs for non-consult E/M codes and fewer of the coding and documentation burdens that were associated with consultation codes.
At the same time, the Medicare auditors are bringing out the sticks in the form of pre-payment and post-payment audits. Medicare's Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) Report for May 2008 specified a high "paid claims error rate" of 16.6 percent for consultation services, with a projected improper payment of $516,912,824. Incorrect coding accounted for 86.4 percent of the consultation coding errors. WPS, Medicare contractor for Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and western Missouri is performing a widespread probe of all consultation claims submitted and requiring pre-payment submission of medical records to substantiate charges. Other Medicare contractors have also chosen consultations for review. Given the state of Medicare funding, can the administrators ignore these results and not attempt to collect (with interest) the money paid out for these consultation services? Will Medicare's Recovery Audit Contractors, who receive a percentage of all money returned to Medicare, ignore these findings? If it were me, I'd accept the carrot and hope the stick is eventually aimed elsewhere.
The proposed removal of consultation codes from the Medicare fee schedule is mostly positive for family physicians, since you seldom get the benefit of the higher payment associated with consultation codes despite doing extensive work-ups before referring patients to subspecialists for specific procedures. However, there could be a drawback in that the higher payment was an incentive for the subspecialists you refer to to promptly report back to you, as the consultation codes require. There is some danger that removal of the incentive will cause greater delays or failure of communication, making it more important than ever that your staff keep logs (automated or manual) to be sure that you are aware of all physicians caring for your patients and follow-up as needed to receive records or reports. If you don't have systems in place to help track referrals, lab tests, etc., consider downloading the AAFP's Road to Recognition guide. Though created to help physicians document the elements necessary for recognition under the National Committee for Quality Assurance's Physician Practice Connections - Patient-Centered Medical Home (PPC-PCMH), the simple tracking tools it includes may be useful in many practices. If you feel certain that you always receive timely written follow-up from consultants, using these tools will provide you with evidence of whether your feelings are matched by your results.
Potentially good news on the Medicare horizon
I don't normally recommend reading the Federal Register unless you're a masochist or have trouble sleeping. However, last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published its proposed rule on the 2010 Medicare physician fee schedule in the Federal Register, and there is actually some good news for family physicians in what CMS is proposing.
Among the proposals that CMS estimates will have a positive impact on family physicians, two are most significant. One is that CMS proposes to use more current physician practice cost data in its calculation of practice expense relative value units. The other is that CMS proposes to increase the relative values of office visits and initial hospital visits in conjunction with a proposal to no longer recognize and pay consultation codes. CMS estimates that the impact of these changes would result in approximately an 8 percent increase in Medicare allowed charges for family physicians in 2010. Not surprisingly, the AAFP has commented in support of both proposals.
Of course, every silver lining is attached to a cloud. In this case, the cloud is a 21.5 percent decrease in the Medicare conversion factor for 2010 if Congress does not intervene between now and Jan. 1. Here's hoping the folks on Capitol Hill get around to that, whether or not they get around to health care reform in general.
CMS is accepting comments on the proposed rule until Aug. 31. You can submit comments online or by other means specified in the proposed rule.