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Coding for the Rest of Us: Why Everyone in Your Practice Needs a Basic Knowledge of Coding

There is no one, and I do mean no one, in your medical practice who does not need to know the basics of coding. Here is why:

  • Providing services to patients is the business of healthcare. Every person who relies on healthcare for their living should understand something about the business they are in. This should not outweigh the fact that we are privileged to care for patients, but as the saying goes “No money, no mission.”
  • It takes a team to produce care. The silos of front desk, billing, nursing and scheduling must come together to share their knowledge and produce a high-quality, reimbursable patient visit. Here are the roles each member of the team plays:
    • The patient calls for an appointment and the scheduler matches the patient’s problem to an appropriate appointment type. The scheduler finds out if the patient is new or established and what the patient’s appointment is for.
    • The patient arrives for the appointment and the front desk assures that all current demographic and insurance information is collected.
    • The nurse rooms the patient, taking vitals, reviewing medications and reviewing the reason for the visit – the chief complaint.
    • The physician or mid-level provider cares for the patient, documenting the visit and choosing the appropriate service and diagnosis codes.
    • The patient completes the visit by paying any deductibles or co-insurance due and making any future appointments needed. The checkout staff enters the payments and/or charges if the service codes have not already been posted via the EMR.
    • The biller “scrubs” the claim, checking for any errors and electronically submits the claim to the payer. The hope is that the claim is clean and will be accepted and paid immediately (within 30 days.)

When staff understands how important their contribution is to the financial viability of the practice and how all the pieces fit together, they are more incentivized to perform.

“Coding” means two things: service codes and diagnosis codes. Service codes describe office visits, surgery, laboratory, radiology, pathology, anesthesia and medical procedures that are provided by physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. Diagnosis codes describe signs, symptoms, injuries, diseases, and conditions. The critical relationship between a service code and a diagnosis code is that the diagnosis supports the medical necessity of the procedure.

Service codes are called either CPT codes or HCPCS (pronounced “hick-picks) based on the payer/insurer who uses them. Most commercial insurers use CPT (Current Procedural Terminology) codes, but Medicare and Medicaid use HCPCS (Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System.) Codes are globally grouped into Level I and Level II:

  • Level I codes include the 5-digit numeric CPT (Current Procedural Terminology) codes. These were developed by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1966 and remain proprietary to the AMA. The codes are updated in October and become effective as of the next calendar year. They are available as a printed manual or as an electronic file.
  • Level II codes are national codes developed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to describe medical services and supplies not covered in the CPT. They consist of alphabetic characters (A through V) and four digits.

There are two ways that patient services are coded so they can be billed to insurance companies. The first is through the use of a preprinted coding sheet, which goes by many different names: superbill, encounter form, routing sheet, patient ticket, or billing form. The physician or mid-level provider indicates which services were provided and maps specific diagnosis codes to the services.

The second is abstraction from the medical record. A coder reads the documentation provided by the physician or mid-level provider, and matches codes to the services described in the record. Computerized coding abstraction via an electronic medical record (EMR) is also an option

Here are some basic coding rules that apply to every type of practice:

  • Always have the latest edition of CPT and HCPCS. Service codes change annually and it is important to use the correct code for the calendar year. Check new, revised and deleted codes annually and change your encounter form and codes in your billing system to match.
  • Attend webinars or seminars annually to stay up-to-date on large-scale coding changes for your specialty or for all specialties. For instance, tobacco cessation counseling is reportable to and payable by Medicare for the first time in 2011 – see a handy guide here and every specialty can bill it.  You may also want to subscribe to coding newsletters for your specialty or check your physician’s specialty society to see what they offer.
  • Utilize the National Correct Coding Initiative (NCCI) to make sure which codes are to be submitted individually versus being bundled. Many practices do not know about or use the NCCI information for the simple reason that it is complex and confusing and changes regularly. Someone in the field who offers great (free) information on the NCCI edits is Frank Cohen here.
  • Have an in-house crosswalk for provider abbreviations to make sure that they have signed off on what their abbreviations mean. The best of all worlds is requiring the physician or mid-level provider to supply a code as opposed to a description.
  • Use scrubbing software tools to check service and diagnosis code mismatches, Local Coverage Determinations (LCDs) for Medicare, any services without appropriate diagnosis codes and any diagnoses without standard accompanying services.
  • Audit your documentation regularly to ensure it matches your level of service (“if you didn’t document it, you didn’t do it”) especially if you are not documenting electronically with decision support tools. Audit yourself or hire a firm to audit for you and document lessons learned and any corrective action taken. This should be part of your practice compliance plan. Note that physician regulatory insurance is now available (Google it) for around $1500 per physician per year.
  • It is always the physician or mid-level provider’s ultimate responsibility to choose the codes that best correlate with what s/he did. When in doubt, always defer to the provider of the service.

Other articles of interest:

How Many Staff Do You Need?

A Perfect Day in Your Medical Practice




Providing and Billing for the Flu Vaccine: Guidance from CMS, the CDC and the Affordable Care Act

Update posted 8-14-2012: For flu shot updates for the 2012-2013 influenza season, click here.

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Update posted 9-22-2011: For flu shot updates for the 2011-2012 influenza season, click here.

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Update Posted 12-20-2010 – Medicare posted code changes for flu vaccines billed to Medicare after January 1, 2011.  Click here for the changes.

For dates of service on or after September 1, 2010, the corrected Medicare Part B payment allowance for CPT 90655 is $14.858.

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It’s that time again, and despite delayed deliveries to some hospitals and practices, the word on the street is that there will be enough flu vaccine (171 million doses) this year for all who want a flu shot.

Model of Influenza Virus from NIH

Image via Wikipedia

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot.  Each year’s flu vaccine cocktail is unique and this season’s (2010-2011) flu vaccine will protect against three different flu viruses: an H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last season.

The Affordable Care Act and the Influenza Vaccine

Just in time for flu season is the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on preventive care.  The ACA states:

This influenza season, children 6 months through 18 years, certain high-risk adults 19 through 49 years, and adults 50 years and older who are enrolled in new group and individual health plans will be eligible to receive the seasonal flu vaccine without cost-sharing when provided by an in-network provider.  Beginning in the plan year that starts after March 2, 2011, all adults 19-49 years of age will be eligible to receive the seasonal flu vaccine with no cost-sharing requirements when provided by an in-network provider.

This is great news for the patient and for healthcare in general.  You may consider it good news or bad news, depending on your view of the whole flu shot process.  Here’s how it works in many practices:

  1. The vaccine is ordered in the spring, with everyone trying hard to guess correctly how many patients will want flu shots in 6 months.
  2. The vaccine arrives in the fall and the first hurdle is pricing it, as you will have to decide how much to mark it up to cover the cost of the ordering, handling and stocking and possibly a teeny profit.
  3. The administration of the vaccine also has to be priced to cover the cost of supplies (syringe, alcohol swab, sometimes a bandaid, printed Vaccine Administration Sheets) and the cost of labor (assessing the patient to make sure they can get the flu shot, giving the shot, and documenting the lot numbers in case of a recall.)
  4. The next decision is disbursement.  Do you have a flu shot clinic and have people get in line for the flu shot, or do you take flu shot appointments, do you give flu shots during regular appointments, or some combination thereof? What about drive-through flu clinics?  Do people sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes to make sure there are no bad after-effects?  How do you let patients know about your flu shot plans without costly postcards or advertisements?
  5. Then, there is policy setting for patients whose insurance covers the flu shot and for patients whose insurance does not.  Do you collect and refund if necessary, or do you not collect and bill the patient after insurance responds (Jaws theme music here, please.)

Does Medicare pay for flu shots?

Medicare pays 100% of the allowable for influenza vaccine (and pneumococcal vaccines) and the administration of the vaccines without any out-of-pocket costs to the patient.  One flu vaccine is allowable per flu season, but Medicare will pay for a second flu shot if a physician determines and documents the medical necessity.  A physician’s order is not necessary and a physician’s supervision is not necessary – that’s why patients are able to get a flu shot at the drugstore.  A patient can receive a flu shot twice in one calendar year by getting a flu shot late in one season and getting a flu shot early in the next season.

How should a provider that is not enrolled in Medicare bill for the flu vaccine?

CMS typically does not allow non-enrolled providers to treat Medicare beneficiaries, however, CMS is allowing them to give flu shots this year.  Beneficiaries can receive a flu vaccine from any licensed physician or provider. However, the billing procedure will vary depending on whether the physician or provider is enrolled in the Medicare Program.

If you are not a Medicare-enrolled physician or provider who gives a flu vaccine to a Medicare beneficiary, you can ask the beneficiary for payment at the time of service. The beneficiary can then request Medicare reimbursement. Medicare reimbursement will be approximately $18 for each flu vaccine.

Public health poster from Spanish flu era.
Image via Wikipedia

To request reimbursement, the beneficiary will need to obtain and complete form CMS 1490S.  So the beneficiary may receive reimbursement, you will need to provide the beneficiary with a receipt for the flu vaccine that has the following information written or printed on it:
”¢    The doctor’s or provider’s name and address
”¢    Service provided (“flu vaccine”)
”¢    Date flu vaccine received
”¢    Amount paid

What codes are used for flu shots?

For flu vaccine and vaccine administration, the following codes are used.

Effective September 1, 2009, (no 2010 changes have been announced) the Medicare Part B payment allowances for influenza vaccines are as follows:

  • For HCPCS 90655, the payment will be  $15.447:  Influenza virus vaccine, split virus, preservative free, for children 6- 35 months of age, for intramuscular use
  • For HCPCS code 90656, the payment will be  $12.541: Influenza virus vaccine, split virus, preservative free, for use in individuals 3 years and above, for intramuscular use
  • For HCPCS code 90657, the payment will be  $15.684:  Influenza virus vaccine, split virus, for children 6-35 months of age, for intramuscular use;
  • For HCPCS code 90658, the payment will be  $11.368:  Influenza virus vaccine, split virus, for use in individuals 3 years of age and above, for intramuscular use
  • HCPCS 90660 (FluMist, a nasal influenza vaccine) may be covered if the local Medicare contractor determines its use is medically reasonable and necessary for the beneficiary. When payment is based on 95 percent of the Average Wholesale Price (AWP), the Medicare Part B payment allowance for CPT 90660 is $22.316 (effective September 1, 2009).

G0008 is the Medicare HCPCS for Administration of influenza virus vaccine, including FluMist.  Other payers usually require use of 90465, 90466, 90467, 90468, 90471, 90472, 90473 or 90474 for administration of the vaccine.

The associated ICD-9 codes for flu shots are:

V04.81    Influenza
V06.6      Pneumococcus and Influenza (both vaccines at one visit)

Other resources:

  • Get your practice and your staff ready for flu season by following the guidelines I write about here.
  • Free downloads from the CDC here.
  • MedLine Plus Articles, Downloads and Resources here
  • Article: Mandating Influenza Vaccine – One Hospital’s Experience (MedScape free account required)
  • National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: Influenza
  • National Influenza Vaccine Summit: Prevent Influenza
  • Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) -Influenza: What You Should Know (pdf)   EnglishSpanish
  • Medicare Preventive Services Quick Reference Information Chart: Medicare Part B Immunization Billing (Influenza, Pneumococcal, and Hepatitis B) is available here (pdf.)
  • For information on roster billing (billing for many patients at one time) see the Medicare Claims Processing Manual for Preventive and Screening Services (Chapter 18) here (pdf) Section 10-3.

NOTE: Beneficiaries have been advised to contact the Inspector General hotline at 1-800-HHS-TIPS (1-800-447-8477) to file a complaint if they believe their physician or provider charged an unfair amount for a flu vaccine.

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The ABN: The Most Misunderstood and Underutilized Document in Healthcare

There’s a new ABN form required to be in use in January 2012 – read about it here in my article “Everybody’s Favorite Form: New Advance Beneficiary Notice of Noncoverage (ABN) Form Begins in 2012”

Note from Mary Pat: The Advance Beneficiary Notice of Noncoverage (ABN) is a collection tool that many medical practices do not know how to implement.  It is particularly difficult to determine who has ownership of this process, because the form must be completed and signed by the patient before the service is provided.  The patient is in the exam room or the lab, ready for the service or test, and a knowledgeable staff person must step in, explain the rules and pricing and obtain the patient’s signature.

Blogger Charlene Burgett does a great job of explaining the ins and outs of using the ABN, and has agreed to share an article originally published on her blog “Conundrum” with MMP readers.

Charlene

The use of the ABN is required by Medicare to alert patients when a service will not be paid by Medicare and to allow the patient to choose to pay for the service or to refuse the service.

If the practice does not have a signed ABN from the patient and Medicare denies the service, the charge must be written off and the patient cannot be billed for it. The only exception is for statutorily excluded services (those that Medicare never covers like cosmetic surgery and complete physicals for example). In this case, a practice can bill the patient for the non-covered service despite not having an ABN.  It is, however, a good idea to have the ABN signed for non-covered services so the patient is made aware that they are responsible.

If the patient signs the ABN and is made aware of their financial responsibility you may require the patient to pay for this service on the date the service is provided. You may also charge the patient 100 percent of your fee. You do not have to reduce your charge to the Medicare allowable.

With a signed ABN, the practice has proof of the patient’s informed consent to provide the service and their agreement to be financially responsible for the service. In the past, Medicare had a “Notice of Exclusion of Medicare Benefits” (NEMB) that we could provide to the patient (no signature required) to alert them of Medicare’s non-covered services. The ABN has replaced the NEMB.

The typical reasons that Medicare will not cover certain services and that would be applicable are:

  1. Statutorily Excluded service/procedure (non-covered service)
  2. Frequency Limitations
  3. Not Medically Necessary

Statutorily Excluded items are services that Medicare will never cover, such as (not a complete list):

  • Complete physicals (excluding Welcome to Medicare Screenings, with caveats)
  • Most immunizations (Hepatitis A, Td)
  • Personal comfort items
  • Cosmetic surgery

For these items, it is a good idea (not a requirement) to complete the ABN and have the patient check the appropriate box under options and sign the ABN. For the sake of the billing department, I strongly encourage the use of ABN’s for statutorily excluded items.

Frequency Limitations are for services that have a specific time frame between services. For example, Medicare allows one pap smear every 24 months if the pap is normal.  If the patient wants one every 12 months for their peace of mind, Medicare will pay for year one and the patient will pay for year two and that pattern continues. The ABN needs to be on file for the year that the patient is responsible for paying.  If the patient fits Medicare’s guidelines for “high risk” they are allowed to have the pap every 12 months and no ABN is required.

Services that are not considered Medically Necessary are those that do not have a covered diagnosis code based on Local Coverage Determinations (LCD).  One example is for excision of a lesion. If the lesion is being removed because the patient just doesn’t like how it looks, that is considered cosmetic surgery. If the lesion is showing some changes (i.e. bleeding, growing, changing color, etc), then it is considered medically necessary because it potentially can be malignant. The removal needs to have diagnosis coding to substantiate the medical necessity and Medicare has Local Coverage Determinations that list all the codes/coding combinations that Medicare will approve for payment.

A rule of thumb in trying to discern the necessity of ABNs is to ask yourself if there may be some times that the service isn’t covered by Medicare.  The times the service isn’t covered, an ABN is required. To illustrate this point, here are two examples:

  • EKGs are covered for certain cardiac and respiratory conditions. The only time an EKG is covered for preventive screening is during the patient’s first year enrolled in the Medicare program and when being done during the Welcome to Medicare screening.  After that time, Medicare will never cover an EKG for preventive screening. To notify the patient of this and to show that the patient agrees to be financially responsible for the EKG, an ABN should be completed.

 

  • Another example is for the Tetanus immunization.  Medicare will cover tetanus when medically necessary; if the patient has cut themselves and the tetanus is provided due to that injury.  If the tetanus is provided to the patient because it has been ten years since the last tetanus and the tetanus is not in response to a recent injury, then it will be non-covered because it is not “medically necessary” and the ABN will need to be on file.

ABNs need to be completed in their entirety.  The “Options” box can only be completed by the patient and it states that “We cannot choose a box for you”.  That would appear to be coercion.

A “blanket” ABN, one that is signed by the patient for all services provided within a certain time period, is not acceptable and is illegal.


In addition, there is a small area to provide additional information that can be used by either the patient or the provider’s office. This could be anything pertinent to the information that the ABN covers. The bottom of the form is where the patient signs and dates. We keep the original ABN in the chart behind the progress note for that day. Providers MUST provide a copy of the signed ABN to the patient.

The current ABN form with instructions can be found here.

If a service is denied by Medicare and the physician does not have a signed ABN prior to the service being rendered, the service can not be billed to the patient and will need to be written off.  Sometimes a patient may refuse to sign the ABN – if this happens it is appropriate for the physician to document the refusal and sign, along with having a witness sign.  Medicare will accept this and the patient can be billed for the service if denied by Medicare.

How does Medicare know whether or not you have a signed ABN?  You tell them, by adding a modifier to the CPT code when completing the claim form.  The appropriate modifiers are:

GA:  The ABN is signed, but the service may not be covered.

GY:  A “statutorily excluded” service.

GZ:  The service is expected to be denied as not reasonable or necessary.  This is typically used when there is a secondary payer that requires the Medicare denial before they pay benefits.

The use of the ABN is often misunderstood; however, it is the only way a patient can be informed about their financial responsibility prior to agreeing to a service being rendered.  This is an issue that the OIG has reportedly been interested in investigating for fraud and abuse.

Charlene Burgett, MA-HCM

Note: Readers, how do you make the ABN work in your practice?  Do you train the clinical staff, the physicians, or other staff to recognize the “ABN Moment”?  How do you make it work? Please share your ideas by responding with a comment.