Letters from Maine

Speaking in code


If you live in Spokane, Wash., 99213 and 99214 are important numbers. Interchanging the last two digits can send your mail into the Twilight Zone. Otherwise those five digit sequences have little significance to most Americans ... unless of course you are a physician. You have been told multiple times by practice administrators and business consultants that the failure to attach the proper sequence to your bill for services can threaten the sustainability of your practice’s bottom line or put you at risk for a costly fine.

Paper money spread out. utah778/Thinkstock

Numerical codes for office visits were not handed down on stone tablets. There was a time when a physician simply charged for something he called an “office visit” and about half that for a “short” office visit that took less time and probably nothing for a “quick recheck.” He chose the fees based on what he felt was reasonable. I remember reading of one physician who pegged his charges at a dollar per penny of the cost of a regular postage stamp. For a variety of obvious and some unfortunate reasons, these loosely structured fee structures have disappeared.

Now a physician is asked to justify his or her charges by documenting what transpired during the office visit. The patient always has been the best witness, and at least has some sense of how much work the physician has had to do to arrive at diagnosis and suggest a treatment plan. Because the patient usually was paying the bill and had a personal stake in the value of the services provided, this system seemed to make sense.

However, now some large corporate entity or government agency probably is paying the bill and would like some idea of what it is being billed for. Justifying the service provided now falls on the physician. When the billing codes were first introduced and before the payers became more curious, it was easy. I simply applied 99213 to all my office visits and once or twice a day I would code out a visit that seemed more complex as a 99214. I wasn’t keeping track of how many minutes I spent in each visit, how many questions I asked, or how many body parts I examined. Except for patients with injured extremities, everyone was pretty much getting the same exam. My coding was based on my perception of value and effort. If it took more time than usual to remove a bit of cerumen or reassure an unusually concerned parent I chalked that up as my misfortune, not a reason to code the visit as a 99214. If I felt I needed more money, I assumed that my best option was to see more patients. Neither the patients nor the payers seemed to be complaining.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

But obviously somewhere someone felt that there were too many providers gaming the system and there needed to be a better way to assign value to what a physician was doing in his or her examining room. Not surprisingly, the current coding system is flawed. I don’t have a workable alternative. However, I always have felt that if the folks who were paying the bills would come visit my office (unannounced if they wish) and spend a morning watching me see patients, they could more accurately assign a value to my work. I’m not sure how many of you would be comfortable with that degree of transparency. But for me it would be worth it if it freed me from the burden of coding to justify my effort.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

Next Article: