Payment cuts to nearly all of medicine, including gastroenterology, could be in store beginning Jan. 1, 2021. Physicians may also face elimination of some services the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services granted temporary access to during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic according to CMS’s recently released policy and payment recommendations. These proposals could be implemented as physician practices are still recovering financially from states’ temporary ban on elective surgeries from March through May 2020 in response to the public health emergency (PHE) and continuing to deal with the clinical and financial challenges of the pandemic.
In early August, CMS proposed a number of changes for 2021 that affect physicians. There’s plenty of good, bad, and ugly in this proposed rule.
Let’s start with two positives (The good):
Medicare proposes to maintain the current values for colonoscopy with biopsy (45385) and esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) with biopsy (43239). Despite a recent reevaluation of these codes in 2016 and 2014, respectively, Medicare conceded to Anthem’s suggestion that the procedures were not overvalued and needed another evaluation. The AGA and our sister societies’ data affirmed the current values and Medicare proposed to maintain them in 2021.
Medicare proposes to increase the price for scope video system equipment (ES031) from $36,306 to $70,673.38 and the suction machine (Gomco) (EQ235) from $1,981.66 to $3,195.85, phased in over 2 years. This will provide a small increase in the practice expense value for all GI endoscopy procedures. Since CMS began conducting a review of scope systems in 2017, the AGA and our sister societies have successfully worked to convince the Agency to increase its payment for GI endoscopes and associated equipment by providing invoices. We are pleased Medicare is updating these items to reflect more accurate costs.
Now onto items that could negatively affect the practice of gastroenterology.
Medicare proposes to stop covering and paying for telephone evaluation and management (E/M) visits as soon as the COVID-19 PHE expires. After originally denying that Medicare beneficiaries had trouble accessing video E/M visits and refusing to cover existing telephone (audio only) E/M codes 99441-99443, the agency responded to enormous pressure from AGA and other specialties and added the codes to its covered telehealth services list, setting the payment equal to office/outpatient established patient E/M codes 99212-99214 during the PHE. Telephone E/M has been a vital lifeline, allowing Medicare beneficiaries who don’t have a smart phone or reliable internet connection to access needed E/M services, while allowing them to stay safe at home during the PHE. There is evidence that our most vulnerable patients have the greatest need for telephone visits to advance their care.1
Medicare’s proposal to stop covering and paying for telephone E/M visits as soon as the COVID-19 PHE expires, while disappointing, is not surprising because of the agency’s reluctance to admit they were needed in the first place. The agency believes that creating a new code for audio-only patient interactions similar to the virtual check-in code G2012 but for a longer unit of time and with an accordingly higher value will suffice. Physicians appreciate that E/M delivered via telephone is not the same as a check-in call to a patient, and the care provided requires similar time, effort, and cognitive load as video visits. The AGA and our sister societies plan to object to Medicare’s proposal to treat these services as “check-ins” with slightly higher payment and will continue to advocate for permanent coverage of the telephone E/M CPT codes and payment parity with in-person E/M visits.