Category Archives: Coding Best Practices

Improving coding accuracy; complete and accurate coding; computer-assisted coding; CAC; remote coding; web-based coding; APR-DRGs; DRGs; diagnosis related groups

Critical Care Coding

How many of us have worked for providers who, regardless of showing them the descriptor in the CPT book, insist upon charging critical care time for a patient in the ICU? For coders, the directions are clear: Regardless of the location of the patient, if the provider treated a critically ill or critically injured patient for 30 or more minutes, it is appropriate to report that service with a critical care code. So, when we see those magic words within the provider’s note, we submit the appropriate code(s). But, some coders don’t see the record. Some are just given a charge slip with the patient’s identifying information, procedure and diagnosis information. What is the right thing to do in this case? Because the critical care reimbursement is much higher than other E&M codes, some clinics review documentation for all critical care codes before submitting. Each group must decide how to handle the coding of these services. Continue reading

Taking a Closer Look at the October ICD-10 Coding Challenge


A 70-year old man presented at an Ambulatory Surgery Center for an upper GI endoscopy to be evaluated for the cause of his recent complaints of some dysphagia. The patient received Midazolam 6mg IV and Fentanyl 100 mcg IV and Benzocaine spray was applied to the back of his throat. After obtaining informed consent, the endoscope was passed under direct vision. It was introduced through the mouth and advanced to the second part of the duodenum. A small hiatal hernia was present. A mild Schatzki ring was found at the gastroesophageal junction at 35 cm. A TTS dilator was passed through the scope. Dilation with at 15-16.5-18 mm x 240 cm CRE balloon (to a maximum balloon size of 18 mm) dilator was performed with mild treatment effect. The esophageal body mucosa appeared mildly corrugated. Biopsies were taken from the upper and lower esophagus. At that point, the patient went into cardiac arrest. We quickly removed the endoscope and began resuscitative efforts. The patient was emergently transferred to the local hospital. Postprocedure diagnoses: Schatzki ring, hiatal hernia, cardiac arrest. Continue reading

CMS is Serious about Overuse of Modifiers: More on 59

On September 10, 2014, OIG announced it settled with a physician group practice in Illinois for overuse of modifiers.  The practice exceeded the number of units allowed for certain services as regulated by CMS. According to the OIG, the physician practice used a code to bypass computer edits that otherwise would have rejected their claims. The group entered into a $590,763.45 settlement to resolve allegations of submitting false or fraudulent claims to Medicare. In addition, OIG contends the group upcoded services and submitted claims for high complexity tests when it performed less expensive, low or moderate complexity tests.

My take:

In September, I posted a blog regarding the modifications CMS plans to make to modifier 59 by creating four new, more specific modifiers that can be used to bypass an NCCI edit. CMS is requiring providers to be more specific with regard to what they believe a separate service really is. What is not new is that using the new modifiers will require documentation that adequately supports their use. A few thoughts on the new modifiers: Continue reading

Four Mistakes My Doctors Make with High Deductible Plans

A year ago my family changed to a high deductible health plan and started using a health savings account. Because we expect to pay higher upfront out-of-pocket expenses, we pay careful attention to the network requirements and out-of-pocket thresholds. Our local providers, though, seem to manage patients with high-deductible plans as if they were no different from traditional PPO plans.

There are several things I wish my providers would do differently, and not just to make it easier for me to manage my family’s health care. My providers inadvertently increased administrative time, delayed payment, and resulted in denials and write-offs. They would do better if they adapted their processes in light of the different plan requirements. Here are four suggestions for avoiding the mistakes my doctors made with my high-deductible plan: Continue reading

E&M Coding: The Final Level of Care

In keeping with the theme of previous blog posts–the professional realm of E&M coding–I’d like to discuss medical necessity as it relates to the final level of care. CMS has stated that medical necessity is the over-arching criterion for payment of E&M services, which, in pure CMS fashion, gives us a goal, but not guidelines as to how to get there. We have no medical necessity policies for the differing E&M codes.

I think we all understand the intent of that statement, which I interpret as “don’t game the system”. But how do I, as a coder, teach a provider how to do that? And, how does the provider document a record to reflect the medical necessity clearly? So, let’s put a pin in that and talk about the calculation of the E&M codes, then circle back. Continue reading

Warning: Abuse of Modifier 59 – CMS Makes Changes

In 1996, CMS implemented the National Correct Coding Initiative or NCCI, sometimes referred to as CCI. The claim system edits were developed to “promote national correct coding methodologies and to control improper coding leading to inappropriate payment in Part B claims.” CMS realized that even if they created edits that bundled or disallowed procedures performed on the same date of service, there would be rare instances that would support using a modifier to override an edit. Thus, certain CPT modifiers were given that designation – modifier 59 among them.

On August 15, 2014, CMS released Transmittal 1422, CR8863 “Specific Modifiers for Distinct Procedural Services” effective January 1, 2015. The Transmittal explains that modifier 59, which is the most highly utilized of the CPT modifiers that CMS allows to override for NCCI edits, has been overused. It is associated with considerable abuse of high-level, costly manual audits, reviews, appeals and even cases of fraud and abuse. Continue reading

E&M Guidelines: HPI and Chronic Conditions

Last month, I blogged about the History of Present Illness (HPI) portion of an E&M note. The HPI section details the specifics of why the patient is seeing their physician. Prior to that, I wrote about the two sets of E&M guidelines, specifically the different exams within those guidelines to guide physicians and/or coders to select a level of care provided during that visit. This month, I’d like to dig into the point at which these two sets of guidelines converge: chronic conditions.

The 1995 E&M documentation guidelines stipulate that to support the higher levels of care, a provider must document four or more elements of the HPI. The 1997 E&M documentation guidelines added a chronic conditions option. These guidelines state that a provider could document the status of three or more chronic conditions rather than four or more elements of the HPI. Continue reading

Medical Necessity Documentation – the Critical Component for CAC

Whether or not you can quote chapter and verse of the Medicare statute that first detailed medical necessity, most of us in healthcare are familiar with its premise1. But from this basic tenant we begin to diverge widely in our understanding of the concept. This is especially true for Medicare inpatient services since CMS does not have specific standards the industry can follow. This issue dates back to the late 1980s when then HCFA admitted, “Current regulations are general and we have not defined the terms ‘reasonable’ and ‘necessary’ nor have we described in regulations a process for how these terms must be applied…”2 Continue reading

“Documentation is the beginning….not the end”

I wish I could claim this quote as my own! I attended the AHIMA CDI Summit in Washington, D.C. this week and our keynote speaker was Laura Zubulake. My two takeaways from her presentation were the quote above and the affirmation that we should always do the right thing…not the easy thing.

One of the more interesting presentations of the week was from a cardiologist who provided insights into the CDI and HIM query process from his perspective. He had an excellent grasp of what was needed for accurate coding–until that one moment. I am sure many of us have been there: listening to a presentation, engaged and learning until we hear something that makes us cringe. He described the following scenario: Continue reading

Alphabet Soup: Acronyms and E&M Coding

As healthcare professionals, we have a lot of acronyms to keep straight, don’t we? Feels like alphabet soup in my head some days. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie, Good Morning Vietnam, where Robin Williams’ character has an entire conversation using acronyms, making fun of the military jargon. We could do the same in healthcare, especially in E&M coding.

Today, let’s think a bit about HPI, not to be confused with PHI. If you have a translator in your head the way I do, these two don’t even sound the same, but for those outside the realm of coding, these acronyms can get confusing. PHI is Protected Health Information. HPI, or History of Present Illness, is the portion of the E&M (Evaluation and Management) visit during which the patient describes why they are seeing the physician. Continue reading