Managing Your Practice

The economics of gynecologic surgery: 13 coding tips to ensure fair payment

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How to get appropriate compensation for your expertise and time



The payment structure for physicians is changing. Our government, the American public, purchasers, and employers are unhappy with the fee-for-service system as it currently exists, and are pushing to drive the system into what is called “value-based purchasing.”

But what is value?

One way to define it is quality divided by cost—but how do we measure quality?

At present, insurers are measuring your quality based on some nebulous definition created at United Healthcare or Blue Cross Blue Shield—looking specifically at your “efficiency,” based on the costs attributed to you, as revealed in the codes you and others submit to payers.

Let’s say you perform minimally invasive surgery, and the referring physician ordered a lot of tests before sending the patient to you. Are you aware that all of those costs may be attributed to you in an administrative system?

ACOG is working hard to establish clinical systems rather than administrative ones to determine the true cost of care. We may want to think of obstetrics and gynecology as primary care and take advantage of advanced payment models and the opportunities afforded to accountable care organizations, but the truth is, insurers frequently do not consider us primary care. Although some of us may develop medical homes for women’s health care, we are unlikely to collect a per-patient, per-month income like primary care physicians do. That means that we need to be more assertive in negotiating contracts with insurers.

In this article, I offer recommendations for such negotiations and explain how to determine what you can and cannot accept in terms of payment.

You are the responsible party
Some of us do our own coding and some of us do not. However, if that coding is inaccurate, it is the physician who goes to jail, not the coder. You are personally responsible and liable for the coding submitted under your provider number.

Clearly, we need to do a better job of advocating for ourselves. We need to lobby. Legislators and bureaucrats are less likely to target people who have strong lobbyists working consistently on their behalf.

Accountable care organizations may have some leverage in negotiating lower prices, and some market forces may come into play in large systems. It remains to be seen which models will succeed as new payment structures develop. The overarching question: What can we do today to optimize our payments, given the system that we have? Here are 13 tactics that can enhance your bottom line.

1. Know the rules
To play the game, you must know the rules. You need to know what systems payers are using to determine your reimbursement—and you have to understand those systems as well as, or better than, the payers do. Then you’ll be able to use them to your advantage.

Payers are well aware that we don’t like to focus on this end of practice, that what we really want to do is spend the day practicing medicine. However, we need to learn these details because we’re leaving money on the table every single day.

2. Educate yourself
With the change to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2015, many of us are worried that payers are going to reject our claims because of our lack of familiarity with ICD-10.

Rest assured. There are crosswalks from ICD-9 to ICD-10. ACOG has published an information sheet for both obstetrics and gynecology that pairs typically used ICD-9 codes with their ICD-10 counterparts. And because it is published by ACOG, payers will find it hard to claim that it’s inaccurate.

ACOG also offers half-day courses on ICD-10 coding for both physicians and staff.

3. Record your decision-making process
When I audit medical charts, I often discover that this process has been neglected. Instead, the coder has relied on documentation from the electronic health record and a basic description of the treatment plan. But a plan is just that—what someone intends to do. It doesn’t convey the decision-making that underlies it. What was the differential diagnosis? What did you discuss with the patient? These details are critical for appropriate coding of the level of service—whether it’s high, intermediate, or low.

4. Refine your approach to coding
Recognize that the system is currently set up to pay physicians for the services we provide—and that service must be justified by the appropriate diagnosis code. Tougher cases, or high-risk patients, tend to have longer surgeries and hospital stays, and their outcomes often are not as good as those of more typical patients. They may have more complications because they’re obese or have severe diabetes, for example. If so, it is critical that these other conditions—obesity and severe diabetes—be included with the principal diagnosis code so that risk stratification is possible. Otherwise, we will be held to the same standard as someone treating a routine, low-risk case.


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