Anthem (and others) to Cut Payment for E&M-25 by 50%

Recently, Anthem in Kentucky (and other states), Harvard Pilgrim, and other plans (so I hear), have established policies to reduce by half payment for Evaluation and Management (E&M) services when accompanied by a -25 modifier and billed in combination with some 150 specific (and commonly used) preventative and procedure codes. The -25 modifier is supposed to indicate that these services are ‘separately identifiable’, according to AMA CPT coding rules. The rationale for this 50% reduction is that the plan does not want to pay twice for ‘the overlap of overhead expenses in the RVUs of the code combinations’. Anthem KY also plans to ‘make improvements in (their) primary care fee schedule allowances for office E&M codes’, but it is not clear to me if these improvements are intended to compensate for some or all of these reductions (don’t count on it).

Initially, I was not sure whether this policy would apply to both office based and facility based providers, so I contacted Anthem in KY to see. Though there was some confusion about this at first, the latest response I got from Anthem KY was that “Emergency Room Physicians will NOT be affected by the 50% reduction in payment”. I do not know at this point whether or not this exception also applies to other facility based providers. When I initially saw the policy statement from Anthem, I replied to them that:

I do not believe that ANY portion of the RVUs assigned to the E&M service should be ignored, deleted, modified, or considered duplicative to the RVUs assigned to the additional procedure when separately identifiable services are coded on the same claim. This is what CPT means by ‘separately identifiable’: it means ‘distinct from’. The overhead expenses associated with an E&M service are likely to be completely separate and independent of the practice or overhead expenses associated with the procedure: incremental rather than overlapping. For example, the major practice expense for an office-based practitioner associated with the performance of an ultrasound is the cost of the machine and the cost of the training to perform the service. Neither of these are necessarily duplicative of, or overlapping with, the practice expenses associated with the provider’s E&M service.

In the case of facility based providers, like emergency physicians, the practice expense component of the E&M services are likewise separate and distinct from the practice expenses associated with procedural services by these providers, AND IN ADDITION, the practice expense component of the emergency physician’s E&M services represent a very small component of the overall RVUs assigned to the E&M service – certainly far less than 50%.

I indicated that this policy was inappropriate whether or not it was applied to office based or facility based providers. It is my understanding that several plans have initiated or are planning to initiate this same sort of payment policy. The AMA has also responded to this development. The fact that Anthem in KY is apparently not going to apply this strategy to emergency physicians, and perhaps other facility based providers, and the argument above against this practice, is an opening that other providers can use to push back when faced with these payment reductions. The unilateral decision by health plans to re-invent or re-interpret CPT claims coding rules on the fly, using rationales that appear more like rationalizations, begs for adoption of standardized, universally applied coding/payment rules for all payers.

This post also published in The Fickle Finger

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