Outpatient Visit Evaluation & Management Changes for 2021

Outpatient Visit Evaluation & Management Changes for 2021

For more than 25 years, the American Medical Association has utilized the 1995 or 1997 guidelines for Evaluation and Management (E/M) services in the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT).  The E/M codes have expanded over the years but until now, there has been no update to the elements, in which, we choose a level of service. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in partnership with the American Medical Association (AMA) collaborated on changes to reduce the administrative burden in documenting outpatient visits for new and established patients.  

The revised guidelines pertain to the new patient codes 99201-99205 and established patient codes 99211-99215.  The revision was announced as part of the 2020 Physician Fee Schedule but does not occur until 2021 due to the many preparations to support this endeavor. The AMA is actually updating the code description for the specified codes, which affects all carriers, not just CMS.  The 99201 code is eliminated for 2021; the remaining codes will retain reimbursement for each code, which is a change from the proposal to condense some codes to a combined rate.  

The inclusion of time has been an explicit factor in the definitions of E/M services in the CPT codebook since 1992.  Beginning in 2021, with the exception of 99211, time alone may be used to select the appropriate level of service. For coding purposes, total time includes both face-to-face and non-face-to-face time spent by the physician or other billable healthcare professional the day of the encounter.  Total time does not include staff preparation time.  

Physician or other provider professional time includes the following:

  • Preparing to see the patient (review test, past visits)
  • Obtaining or reviewing separately obtained history
  • Performing a medically appropriate exam
  • Counseling and education for the patient/family
  • Ordering medication, tests or procedures
  • Referring and communicating with other providers
  • Documenting clinical information 
  • Independently interpreting results (not separately reported) and communicating results
  • Care coordination

Another option for choosing the level of the new or established E/M in 2021 is medical decision-making.  Medical decision-making has always been an element in the level of each new and established visit but never as a standalone element.  The concept of MDM does not apply to CPT 99211. When using MDM in selecting the level of the visit, the documentation should reflect the number and complexity of diagnosis addressed in the encounter.  The amount and complexity of data reviewed or analyzed is also required. The risk of morbidity should be documented to support the level of medical decision-making.  

These changes will most likely reduce the administrative burden for all specialties, but it is also disruptive.  The implementation of electronic medical records has had a huge impact on workflow at the physician/provider level as well as the staff.  Large and small practices have spent time developing comprehensive templates, triage teams, scribe teams, etc. to reduce the physician burden and feed quality data to the EMR.  Each practice will need to analyze the process in which they prepare a patient and how they decide medical necessity of history obtained. Each provider has a different patient schedule; in the past time spent with the patient was explicit.  In 2021, billing on total time spent could send a message of compliance. If a provider sees 25 patients a day coding a level 4 visit, they would be stating they spent 49-60 minutes per patient or 20 hours on that date of service inpatient care.  I do not anticipate providers seeing a higher volume of patients will bill on total time, it is not a common practice for providers to assess time spent with each patient.  

Most providers will probably code using the medical decision-making component. In the past, providers could reach a level 4 established visit based solely on the history and exam, which is not so in 2021! There will be prolonged service codes available to bill in addition to a new or established visit in cases when extended direct patient time is spent with clinical staff and supervised by the physician. 

Managers will spend 2020 assessing the many facets to consider the 2021 changes.  How will they maintain quality data entry in the EMR without the many clicks feeding the data?  Providers may use voice recognition to transcribe the medical decision-making as they did before the EMR.  In a potentially massive cost rebalance, CMS also finalized the relative value units (RVU) for the group of oft-used E/M services, which will determine 2021 pay rates. The RVU changes, for example, would boost payments for code 99214 – the most-reported E/M code – from $109 to $136 per claim, a 25 percent increase. Rates for 99213 would jump nearly 30 percent.  

Changes could occur before 2021, but it’s not likely we will move totally away from the decisions already made by CMS and the AMA.

Article contributed by Tammie Lunceford, Healthcare and Dental Consultant, Warren Averett Healthcare Consulting Group. Warren Averett is an official Gold Partner with the Medical Association.

Posted in: Management, Members

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