“That’s unusual for a doctor who’s not seeing patients in the hospital,” said Lamar Blount, a Medicare billing expert with the Health Law Network consultancy in Atlanta. “Usually cardiac patients in the hospital are the ones that are about to die.”
KQED conducted this analysis in conjunction with ProPublica, which published a national investigation last week. ProPublica also developed a “Treatment Tracker” tool, which allows consumers and journalists to look up a provider and see how often he or she bills at the highest level for office visits.
Patients Pay More, Too
These billing patterns raise questions for Medicare as a whole and for individual patients who pay a percentage copay. The higher level visits cost more. “Twenty percent of $200, for example, is obviously more than 20 percent of $100,” said Christina Melnykovych, president of Coding Continuum and an expert in insurance billing. “There’s a direct correlation between the service level billed and the paid amount, and thus the copay impacts the patient.”
All established patient office visits are coded under a category called “evaluation and management.” These visits are billed at one of five levels, with “5″ being the most complex. Established patients are people the provider has seen at least once before. First-time doctor appointments are coded differently.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare, declined to comment for this story and in a statement said they have not seen the data analysis.
“Some providers have sicker patients, thus are more likely to bill at [evaluation and management] coding levels that carry higher payments. Every day we work with providers to make patient care the priority, and at the same time ensure they use [evaluation and management] codes that reflect the level of service provided,” the agency said. “It’s our assessment that it would be highly unusual for a provider to knowingly use the highest (level) code … for all or nearly all of his or her outpatient visits.”
Only one percent of California doctors billed Medicare at the highest level for all of their office visits for their established patients.
Tue, May 20 2014