CT magazine (August 2022)
Medical school curriculum is heavy in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, and clinical rotations or clerkships. There is very little, if any, instruction on proper coding and billing for professional services. The years a physician spends during residency might result in a little training in coding and billing, but typically it is not extensive. After residency, a physician is thrown into the real world of compliance risks associated with coding, billing, and documentation. Some physicians report the rules don’t make sense. Other clinicians report being too busy with patient care to have time to learn billing and coding rules. However, ignoring some common coding and billing risk areas can result in questionable compliance practices, potential audits, and, in some cases, enforcement.
What are some of the most common coding, billing, and documentation compliance risks that physicians face today? There are many, but let’s take a closer look at two common areas: upcoding and misuse of modifiers.
One of the most common coding and billing compliance risks that physicians face is the practice of upcoding. For decades, upcoding has resulted in False Claims Act allegations by the government and whistleblowers, resulting in significant financial settlements, corporate integrity agreements, and internal or external audits.
What is upcoding?
Upcoding is a practice of submitting a claim with a higher or more extensive medical code when the documentation and/or circumstances do not warrant it. The higher, or more complex, codes typically get reimbursed at a higher rate than the lower codes. Some of the coding systems involved include the American Medical Association’s Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) system, Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS), and International Classification of Diseases (ICD) coding.
For example, evaluation and management (E/M) codes represent the typical nonprocedural work that a physician performs when they see a patient. It usually includes taking a patient’s medical history, performing a physical examination, and providing medical decision-making that might include ordering tests or offering treatment such as prescribing a medication. There are different categories of E/M codes, and within a category, there might be multiple levels, such as three, four, or five different levels of codes. For example, you might hear an auditor tell a physician, “the E/M documentation only supports a level three, not a level five.”
Upcoding is often cited in announcements of settlements and enforcement actions. For example, in April 2022, two Nebraska surgeons paid more than $43,000 as part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) to resolve allegations the surgeons submitted claims to Medicare for E/M services that were coded at higher levels of intensity than were medically reasonable and necessary.
In 2021, it was announced that a group of ear, nose, and throat physicians in El Paso, Texas, settled E/M upcoding allegations by paying $750,000.
There are written guidelines for proper E/M coding and documentation that have been around for decades. You may hear reference to the 1995 guidelines or the 1997 guidelines. These are written guidelines for evaluating E/M documentation and the various levels of codes. More recently, the E/M guidelines changed in 2021 for select categories of E/M codes, primarily the office visit codes. Future guideline changes are expected for other categories of E/M codes. With this in mind, it is essential to know which …….