• 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 Patient-Centered Medical Home (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.

    Posted on Aug 20, 2009 by Cindy Hughes

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