Mad as Hell Doctors in California: October 6

Mad as Hell Doctors in California ( October 6, 2010

Up at 6:30, quiet tea in SoCal, with steady soaking rain outside. Not the image I really have of SoCal.

Our hostess fed us french toast with yohgurt and applesauce and we discussed single payer, medicare for all and the current insane insurance, billing and coding systems. My host asked, “Why does my bill say one amount and the insurance company pay another, much lower amount? What is that “adjustment”?”

The amount a doctor is paid has little to nothing to do with the amount that we bill: that is, if we are “preferred providers” and “take insurance.” Did you think that “preferred provider” or “in network” had to do with the quality of the medical care? Don’t be silly. It has to do with money and insurance profits. Here is the back story:

In starting up my own clinic, I’ve interviewed billing companies. Every billing company tells me not to worry about coding, they’ll go over each chart, they will let me know about mistakes. They will take care of it.

The thing is, I know that every place that I’ve been employed and in residency and in medical school, not one place had good coders. What is a coder? Every medical visit in the United States must have ICD-9 codes for every diagnosis. High blood pressure is 401.1. Diabetes, type II “not stated as uncontrolled” is 250.00, but there must be at least 30 different codes for diabetes. Diabetes, type I, uncontrolled, with kidney problems, has a specific ICD-9 code. Words are not ok, I have to provide a number for every diagnosis and if the number is not specific enough, the insurance may say that it is “not a covered diagnosis” and they will reject the bill. So I can’t use 250, that is not specific enough. It doesn’t matter that that code means diabetes, I have to specify it out two more digits. Does the patient feel better or get better care if I say 250.00? No. Do I give better care? No. The system benefits the insurance company because every bill they reject add to their profits.

Now, that is just the first number I have to provide. I also need to put a CPT code on every bill. That is the procedure code. A visit to the doctor for a code is billed as a procedure: for a level of visit. Doctor notes have gotten longer and longer to try to satisfy all of the requirements for documentation so that an insurance company can’t “downcode” to a lower level and pay less. Surgeries all have procedure codes and lab tests and strep tests and immunizations, but as a family doctor, most of my “procedures” are talking visits. Talking, explaining, asking questions, teaching, and gentle nagging: studies have shown that if doctors remind people to quit smoking, they are more likely to quit. The most common CPT codes for me are 99213 – a straightforward office visit, and 99214 – a more complicated office visit.

The CPT codes each have assigned RVUs- Relative Value Units. These attempt to put a value on each procedure. This involves a three part formula: and then each state pays a different amount for medicare for that CPT code. It doesn’t matter what the doctor bills: if they are contracted with medicare, medicare pays whatever is assigned for that state.

Insurance companies have followed suit, so to be a “preferred” or “in-network” provider, the doctor has to contract with each separate insurance company. Each contract is different and they all frequently change, so to try to track what is billed, verses what multiple insurance companies, medicare, federal medicaid and state medicaid have agreed to pay, is a nightmare. At this time, the administrative cost to be a “preferred provider” is $65,000 per primary care doctor per year. This is the cost of contracting, keeping track of the contracts, filling out all of the applications to be a preferred provider, and having employees to submit bills, keep track of bills, to resubmit bills that have been rejected and argue with insurance companies when they refuse to pay a bill. Quite a privilege, right? And maybe YOU thought that “preferred provider” meant really good doctors that your insurance company carefully screened. Don’t be so silly, this is about corporate profits!

I asked one billing company how they keep track of all of the rules. For example, now medicare will pay .03% more on a bill if I e-prescribe and put a special CPT code on the bill. Try remembering that. “Well,” said the biller, “That code is to your advantage this year, but next year it would net you more to use the special code for having an electronic medical record. You can’t use both. That would be illegal.” Ok, my head hurts. I’m supposed to keep track of this AND see patients? Biller, “Honestly, we try to keep track of the big insurers, Blue Cross, medicare, medicaid, but we just give up on the rules for the little ones. And we track whether each big company is paying you what they agreed to pay on the contract. Often they don’t. When we contact them, they say, oh, that was a computer upgrade, we misfiled Dr. X. We see these “misfilings” all the time, but honestly, we’ve never once seen one in the doctor or patient’s favor.” Huh. 100% of errors pay less to the contracted physician. That is some really creative corporate planning, don’t you think?

I have met one set of good coders. My previous employer hired coding auditors, who would check 10 charts per doctor per year. Last year I asked them to review one of my high risk obstetrics charts. Remember, I got nearly no education on coding and billing and frankly m career has been about taking care of sick people, not billing and coding. They said I was doing one part wrong. That means that my employer’s internal coders have not caught the error nor given me feedback for the last 10 years. How much lost revenue is that?

So I called the coding audit company and asked them to recommend a billing company. I have the name and now a very good set of questions that I have to answer before they will consider working with me. Usually they work with cancer doctors, not primary care. But they will consider it.

The medical bill for any insured person is “adjusted” down to the contracted amount. So who gets the full bill? You can guess, can’t you: the uninsured people and the underinsured people, the sickest and those who can least afford it. And maybe if they take all their tax and employment information to a clinic or hospital, they too can get their bill “adjusted”, though that may not be enough. The people who go in to bankruptcy from medical bills are most often the insured: one million US citizens per year now.