Recently, I received a call from a physician who had heard from a consultant that he should code his levels of evaluation and management (E/M) services based solely on the medical decision making involved. He asked me if this was true.
As I have done with other callers asking the same question, I assured him that this was incorrect information. Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) clearly states that all of the key components (i.e., history, examination, and medical decision making) play a role in selecting a level of E/M service (unless you’re coding on the basis of time because counseling and/or coordination of care dominated the encounter). For some codes (e.g., new patient office visits), all three key components must meet or exceed the stated requirements to qualify for a particular level of E/M service. For other codes (e.g., established patient office visits), two of the three key components must meet or exceed the stated requirements to qualify for a particular level of E/M service. In no case does CPT state that medical decision making, by itself, determines the level of E/M service.
Medicare policy supports this interpretation. Section 30.6.1, “Selection of Level of Evaluation and Management Service,” of Chapter 12 of the Medicare Claims Processing Manual states, in part, “Instruct physicians to select the code for the service based upon the content of the service.” That content includes the history and examination.
This particular urban coding myth grows out of confusion between medical decision making and medical necessity. As the same section of the Medicare Claims Processing Manual says, “Medical necessity of a service is the overarching criterion for payment in addition to the individual requirements of a CPT code.” Using an extreme example, you can perform and document the history, examination and medical decision making necessary for a level-five office visit for a patient with a common cold, but there are not many people who would say that level of service was medically necessary in that circumstance. In any case, medical necessity is not the same as medical decision making, and medical necessity governs payment, while medical decision making plays but one part in selecting the level of E/M service.
So the next time someone tells you to code E/M services only on the basis of medical decision making, you might warn them about all the alligators living in the sewer system.
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