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Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 11/5/18

A reader recently asked for Mr. H’s prediction on what to expect from Medicare’s “Patients Over Paperwork” initiative. Mr. H asked me to chime in, along with readers, with my thoughts on the proposed changes to E&M codes, office visit documentation, and other paperwork.

He noted that, “It’s hard to separate meaningful HHS/CMS announcements from the political rhetoric spouted by its campaigner-appointees, so I’ve quit trying.” I agree that it’s a quite a challenge to figure out what is going on with CMS lately, since there seem to be many announcements talking about how great things are going to be, but with little change for the people actually doing the boots-on-the-ground work.

I’ve been shocked by the level of rhetoric in CMS announcements under the new administration. Everything seems to have been cranked up a notch and things that need not be political are being politicized. Healthcare finance and payment for providers is complicated and divisive enough and doesn’t need red vs. blue overtones applied on top of it all.

As to the initial question, I think that some of the details in finalizing the 2019 Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) and Quality Payment Program (QPP) rules show that the current CMS/HHS leadership might have bitten off more than they can chew. Physicians were initially excited about a potential move to overhaul Evaluation and Management (E&M) coding, creating fewer “blended” codes that were purported to more accurately reflect the work being done by physicians during office visit encounters. Although there was some positive excitement, the majority of the 15,000 comments that CMS received were negative, according to multiple reports (for those of us who didn’t read all of them). On November 1, CMS responded to that dichotomous excitement by delaying changes to those visit codes until 2021.

It’s important to remember that even though CMS ostensibly only makes the coding rules applicable to Medicare patient visits, because of how things work, they’re pretty much applicable to everyone, including commercial insurance payers and Medicaid. Self-pay patients are impacted somewhat, depending on how practices handle those patients.

The overall sentiment cited in the announcement of the delay was concern by physicians that the planned blending would reduce payments to physicians caring for Medicare patients with complex health conditions and/or multiple chronic conditions. CMS will now plan to consolidate the codes from eight to three instead of the originally-proposed two, preserving the “level 5” code used for the most complex (and most time-consuming) office visits. Another two years are needed to work out the details, apparently. CMS Administrator Seema Verma is quoted as saying, “We know this is going to have a tremendous impact on many physicians in America. We want to get it right.”

I take issue with that comment. If you knew it was going to have such a huge impact, why did you think it was OK to go ahead and put it in the most recent proposed rule? Wouldn’t it have been better to put together some working groups or task forces, etc. including actual working physicians rather than cobbling together something internally and then having to take it back? To an in the trenches physician, this back and forth makes one feel like CMS doesn’t understand us and that it has become reactionary rather than proactively addressing the issues that all of us face. If the wheel was less squeaky, would this have moved along?

The American Medical Association and the Medical Group Management Association are in support of the delay, noting in various press releases and on-the-record comments that the plan was flawed. MGMA SVP of Governmental Affairs Anders Gilberg stated, “Blending payments rates in 2021 won’t necessarily reduce burden, especially with CMS’ newly required add-on codes.” More than 150 various medical societies signed on to a letter opposing the new structure prior to the announcement of the delay.

CMS claims that proposed changes will simplify the way physicians bill for visits, and along with other modifications, are expected to save clinicians $87 million in administrative costs in 2019, ultimately yielding a net savings if $843 million over the coming decade and 21 million hours by 2021.

You know what would also save money and reduce physician angst, possibly slowing the retirement and exodus of much-needed clinicians? Stop harassing physicians with coding audits. Practices constantly receive requests from their Medicare intermediaries asking for documentation to justify the various codes. The practices I work with have gotten responding to these down to a fine science, trying to waste as little of their time as possible. Most of them have a 95 percent or greater success rate in justifying their codes.

I agree that means that five percent of the time they are overcoding or undercoding, but does catching that justify the millions of hours spent dealing with the audits? How about targeting the most egregious offenders and letting the rest of the physician base spend their staff resources managing patients rather than printing and mailing/faxing records to auditors? Burden isn’t just a financial problem – it’s a psychological one and is closely associated with clinician burnout.

Notwithstanding the delay in the E&M codes, CMS is moving forward with other elements of the Rule (and other proposed rules) that are supposed to reduce burden or save money. Physicians can focus on documentation of the interval history since the previous visit, rather than re-documenting previously documented information just for the sake of documentation. Physicians will not have to re-document the chief complaint and history of present illness already documented by their staff or by the patient himself/herself, just because the rules require it. Wholesale acquisition costs for Medicare Part B drugs are supposed to be lowered with the savings passed on to consumers. The so-called “Meaningful Measures” plan should simplify quality reporting for various federal programs that often do not align. Telehealth services and remote monitoring under home health should save money.

As I try to put my thoughts together on this complex topic, my blood pressure is definitely rising. I struggle with the conundrums that we’re facing in healthcare today, at least in the way that I have boiled them down so that I can attempt to understand them:

There are many other elements I could cite, but I’d like to preserve some good spirits for the rest of the day and a charity project I’m about to go work on. I wonder, though, as policy-makers debate the solutions they propose for all of this, if they really think about both sides of the various equations or whether we’ve gotten to such a position of polarization that they can only see their own perspective.

What do you think about the Patients Over Paperwork initiative? Leave a comment or email me.

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