THE HAPPY HOSPITALIST
First published 11/26/07 on The Happy Hospitalist.
Want to know how doctors get paid? What is a 99223? What does that mean? Well. It means everything. And it means nothing. It is the vast land of numbered codes, the mystery of CPT medical coding that every physician must grasp, or at least their office staff, in order to get payed for services provided. It is how doctors get paid to remain a viable business of providing health care. It is called coding. I’ll repeat simply: It is how physicians get paid.
As much as I love coding (because I’m good at it, really good at it), it is a ridiculously difficult and arbitrary. So difficult and vague that often times audits by Medicare often result in multiple different opinions by Medicare themselves, by their auditors.
How doctors get paid is based on a system of confusion. And I’m am here to say. It is absolutely insane. It is the system of codes, which all third party insurance rules (Medicare/Medicaid/private insurance) use to determine the “level of care.” To determine who much your time/surgery/procedure is worth. How much you get paid. It is, in the end, the most important, life sustaining element for physicians, because coding determines your revenue.
And revenue determines your viability. Dr Kevin blogged about that here.
And because of that, let the games begin. It is the futile attempt to bring rings of value to medical service. Services which are so vastly different and unique for every patient. I will attempt to walk you through an example of the payment system, and how it relates to relative value units (RVUs) and ultimately how doctors get paid.
The number of codes are massive and incorporate all imaginable procedures, encounters, surgeries. Any possible health care interaction has a CPT code.
Hospitalist medicine is limited (thank goodness) in the types of codes we use.
So I only have to remember a few.
- 95% of my billing is based on about 20 CPT codes.
- 3 Admit codes (99221,99222,99223)
- 3 follow up codes.(99231,99232,99233)
- 2 critical care codes (99291, 99292)
- 5 consult codes (99251-99255)
- 7 observation codes (99218-99220, 99234-9923699217)
- 2 Discharge codes (99238, 99239)
There are a few others, but these 22 codes determine my very financial existence. They determine how hospitalists get paid. Medicare says so.
Imagine a surgeon, a primary care doc, and a medical subspecialist. Every single interaction has a code. There are codes for codes, modifiers for codes, add on codes, disallowed codes, V codes, M codes.
It seems the list is endless. And you have to get it right. Every time. Or you don’t get paid. Or you are accused of fraud. It is an impossible feat. The process of taking care of patients has turned into a game of documentation. And it has drastically affected the efficiency for the practice of medicine.
Let me walk you through a 99223, the CPT code for the highest level admit for inpatient care. A level “three”. There is no actual law, as I understand it, on the Medicare books that definitely defines the requirement for the codes.
The following is my understanding of what Medicare requires to bill a level three admit, CPT code 99223. You must have every one of these components or it’s considered fraud, over billing or waste if you don’t .
- 1) History of Present Illness (HPI) : This requires 4 elements (character, onset, location, duration, what makes it better or worse, associated signs and symptoms) or the status of three chronic medical conditions.
- 2) Paste Medical History (PMH): It requires a complete history of medical (medical problems, allergies, medications), family (what does your family suffer from), social (do you smoke or shoot up cocaine?) histories.
- 3) Review of Systems (ROS): A 12 point review of systems which asks you every possible question in the book. Separated by organ system.
- 4) Complete Physical Examination (PE): With components of all organ systems.
- 5) High Complexity Medical Decision Making: This one is great. It is broken down into 3 areas and you must have 2 of 3 components as follows. Pull out your calculator.
- 5a) Diagnosis. 4 points are required to get to high complexity. Each type of problem is defined by a point value (Self limiting, established stable, established worsening, new problems with no work up planned and new problems with work up planned). You must know how many points each problem are worth. Count the number of problems. Add up the point value for each one and you get your point value for diagnosis. You must have four points to be considered high complexity.
- 5b) Data. 4 points are required for high complexity. Different data components are worth a different number of points. For example, data includes such things as reviewing or ordering lab, reviewing x rays or EKGs yourself, discussing things with other health care providers (which I have never been able to define), reviewing radiology or nuc med studies, and obtaining old records etc. Each different data point documented (remember you have to write all this down too) is given a different point value. You must add up the points to determine your level of complexity. Get four points and you get high complexity.
- 5c) Concepts” I call this the basket. Predefined, sometimesvague (very vague) medical process that are defined as “high risk”. Such as the need to closely monitoring drug therapy for signs of toxicity ( I would include sliding scale insulin in this category), de-escalating care, progression or side effect of treatment, severe exacerbation with threat to life or limb, changes in neurological status, acute renal failure, cardiovascular imaging with identified risk factors. There are many of categories that are defined as a high risk concept.
- Out of 5a, 5b, and 5c, you must meet criteria on two out of three to be considered high risk.
There you have it folks. This is how doctors get paid. This is what I have to document every time I admit a patient to the hospital to get paid and not be accused of fraud. This is what the government has decided is necessary for doctors to get paid. This is what I must consider every time I take care of you to get paid. I find myself wondering if I wrote down that I personally reviewed that EKG. I wonder if I wrote down that your great great grand mother died of “heart problems.” I wonder if I remembered to write down all your pertinent positives on your 12 point review of systems and I wonder if I documented the lack of positives in all other systems that were reviewed.
Oh yeah. I forgot, I have to do all this while actually taking care of your medical problems and making sure I’m taking care of you based on sound medical principles. This is how doctors get paid in the twentieth century.
This is coding in a nutshell. A 99223. This is what I think about when I’m admitting you through the emergency room. This is E&M medicine. This is Medicare medicine. This is how your government has decided the practice of medicine should be. For doctors to get paid, I must document what Medicare says I must in order to care for you, the patient. It doesn’t matter what I think is important to write in the chart. What matters is what is required to get paid.
Like I have said before, the medical chart has become nothing more than a giant invoice for third parties to assert a sense of control. I’m telling you, it’s nothing more than a really inefficient game of cat and mouse. It is a terribly inefficient and expensive way to practice medicine.
And I might remind you, the exercise above was an example of just one patient on one day. I do this upwards of 15 times a day. Every day. Day after day. Year after year. Oh yeah, and the rules are different for inpatient follow-up codes, discharge codes, critical care codes, and observation/admit same day codes. They all have their different requirements for doctors to get paid.
And I have to get it right for every single patient I see. Every day. Over 2500 times a year. With the expectation of 100% accuracy.
You see, in the eyes of Medicare, you are a 99223.