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Medicare E&M Guidelines Undermine Patient Care

Since the late 1990s, American physicians have labored under a set of tortuous documentation requirements imposed upon them by our government. The E&M guidelines (for “evaluation and management”), apply to the documentation that physicians are now obligated to provide in support of their Medicare billing. The E&M guidelines, first instituted in 1995 and revised in 1997, were part of the Clintons’ great fraud reduction initiative. Ostensibly, the strict documentation requirements reduce the opportunity for fraudulent billing.

While doctors initially railed against the E&M guidelines, they now suffer them in relative silence. The E&M guidelines have become, in fact, just one more hurdle which doctors must navigate as they pick their way through the vast obstacle course that now defines the practice of American medicine. Indeed, younger doctors accept the odious documentation requirements as a matter of course, knowing nothing better, just as children born into the direst third-world slums accept their abject poverty without notable complaint.

But occasionally, physicians of a certain age, dimly remembering how it ought to be, will still complain about these guidelines. One of these is revered fellow blogger DB, who (unlike DrRich) is still in the trenches, and must deal with – and try to teach trainees how to navigate through –- this abomination on a daily basis. Accordingly, DB is periodically moved to remind us of what he graciously believes to be the unintended consequences resulting from the E&M guidelines, which is to say, DB seeks to remind us that current medical documentation requirements get in the way of good and efficient patient care.

For some, however, even this sort of mild-mannered, exceedingly polite objection is not to be countenanced. One of DB’s correspondents fired back at him:

“The templates are there to serve as a guide, not a hinderance. If you don’t like your “guide” then work to change it. You shouldn’t look at this “guide” as a form of billing, but rather as a guide in making sure you have covered your bases when seeing the patient. Proper documentation can lead to quality care and positive patient outcomes.”

This, indeed, is the official government position on E&M guidelines. It is so official, in fact, that it moves DrRich to wonder whether Cass Sunstein has actually implemented his well-documented anti-conspiracy strategy, and thus has dispatched armies of government-approved agents to monitor and actively counter “untruths” which are unfriendly to government aims, wherever they are found.

In any case, DrRich is not as polite (or as circumspect) as DB, and so he will say it outright.

The E&M guidelines were established for the specific purpose of controlling the behavior of physicians, to further the goals of covert rationing.

First and foremost, they create a Regulatory Speed Trap of the first order, so that with each and every patient encounter the item that will be foremost in the physician’s mind is not the needs of the patient, but in filling out the complex documentation in such a way as to avoid the appearance of committing a fraud. In practical terms, this means filling out the documentation so as to blend in with the masses, so that one’s records will be passed over by the sharp eyes of the greedy forensic accountants (who are paid by commission for detecting instances of substandard documentation, which are now construed as “fraud”), or even worse, by the sophisticated software now being deployed to detect ever-more nuanced gradations of “outliers.”

A classic post by The Happy Hospitalist describes the mysteries of E&M documentation better than any other attempt DrRich has seen. HH’s description of the documentation hoops through which physicians now must jump is detailed enough that it’s actually difficult to read. Which is the point.

Through their utter opacity and complexity, only partially reflected by the 48 pages of dense prose that comprise them, the E&M rules (for “rules” is what they are) in fact greatly magnify the doctor’s opportunity for making inadvertent documentation errors, and thus of producing a “fraudulent” bill. HH’s post nicely demonstrates how writing a progress note according to the E&M rules requires assembling a complicated set of “elements” from Column A and Column B, as from a Chinese menu, for each of four subject areas of the patient encounter –- the history, the physical exam, the assessment, and the plan. Then somehow, one must translate the result (which reads like –- and often is –- a computer-generated form letter) into the proper, fully-supported billing code.

Even if this mess led to a straightforward means of determining proper billing codes (which it does not), it results in a medical progress note that is virtually undecipherable. This means that when another doctor (or even the same doctor on a different day) tries to read the progress notes to figure out what’s been going on with the patient (which used to be the point of medical progress notes, before they became primarily a vehicle for auditors), they cannot. Compliance with the E&M guidelines can thus actively confound patient care.

When the E&M guidelines were first introduced, they were recognized immediately by doctors as a complete abomination. Indeed, the great hue and cry from angry physicians (and the arrival on the scene of a new Republican administration) caused the Secretary of HHS to appoint a special commission to review the E&M guidelines in 2001. The commission concluded that indeed, the E&M guidelines were entirely counterproductive to patient care, and in June, 2002 voted (20-1) to recommend abandoning them altogether.

But HHS declined to follow the recommendations of its own commission, instead leaving the E&M guidelines in force “temporarily,” and vaguely promising to revise them “soon” in order to make them less dangerous to patient care -– knowing full well that the saurian lassitude of the bureaucracy would easily outlast the fleeting indignation of the medical community.

(This simple example ought to teach us how difficult it will be to roll back any of our new healthcare reforms in the future, even ones that are officially deemed to be harmful.)

Accordingly, not only has HHS failed to take (or, alternately, succeeded in not taking) steps to revise the E&M guidelines, they also have vigorously pressed forward with audits and prosecutions for the federal crime of healthcare fraud, based on physicians’ inadequate compliance with them. And, as the bureaucrats must have predicted, there has not been any substantial noise from doctors about revising these guidelines for several years now.

What’s more, there never will be. Save for the occasional exhortation from an old fossil (sorry, DB), the E&M guidelines have been fully absorbed into modern medical practice. They have become normal.

Accordingly, a multi-million dollar industry has sprung up to help physicians better comply with these coding guidelines. Physicians across the country are spending the time and money allotted for their continuing medical education learning to become better accountants, rather than better physicians.

Which brings DrRich to his last point: It is not actually possible to follow the E&M guidelines to anyone’s satisfaction.

There is, in fact, no “correct” way to code, because correct coding is impossible. This verity was proven a few years ago when a group of specialized government-sanctioned coders took a sample of typical doctor-patient visits, coded them according to their own E&M guidelines –- and they all got different answers. (The results of this study were published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in September, 2002.)

Obviously, then, since there is no “right” way to comply with the coding rules, any doctor toward whom the fickle finger of fate points the Feds is very likely to be found guilty of abuse, if not outright fraud. And what we’ve got here is a well-documented, openly acknowledged, peer-reviewed and published Regulatory Speed Trap.

Here’s what happens to doctors who are found to commit coding abuse (which is to say, to any doctors who are visited by Federally-sanctioned auditors):

1) A small sample of their patients’ charts is audited.
2) The error rate (with the auditor determining retrospectively what an error is) is calculated for that sample, then that rate is applied by extrapolation to all the Medicare billing the doctor has done for the past 6 years (the statute of limitations).
3) For each violation in coding the doctor is calculated to have committed during those six years, the doctor must pay a) triple the amount of restitution, and b) $11,000.00 (per coding violation).

It is not unusual for audited doctors to be hit with hundreds if not thousands of coding violations over a 6-year period, and the fines will almost always amount to well over 7 figures, if not 8. Even rich doctors usually can’t afford that kind of damage. However –- if it’s just abuse the doctor has committed and not fraud –- often the Feds may offer a settlement deal in the low 7 figures.

And here’s what happens if the coding violations are judged to be fraudulent (which, unfortunately, often appears a somewhat arbitrary designation):

1-3) All the above.
4) Jail

In summary, DB makes a very legitimate point, and has made this point several times over several years. Namely, the E&M coding rules are highly counterproductive to patient care. They produce medical records that are fundamentally undecipherable regarding actual medical content, even by medical professionals; and they distract physicians, with every patient encounter, into a fraud-avoidance exercise.

Sadly, however, DrRich does not believe that merely pointing out the harm being caused to thousands of patients each and every day by the E&M guidelines will do any good. Believing that it might do some good to call the Feds’ attention to it assumes that the harm is an unintended consequence, or at least, that it would be considered too high a price to pay.

This, DrRich feels obligated to reiterate, is demonstrably not the case. The Feds know that the E&M guidelines are harmful to patient care. Their own commission came to that very conclusion in 2002. The Feds know that failing to comply perfectly with the E&M guidelines in each and every case does not really indicate fraud and/or abuse, but is the necessary outcome when you institute a complex set of rules that not even the government’s own coders can interpret. Reminding the Feds of these facts, in public, may make them angry, but it will not change their position on E&M guidelines.

That the Feds continue to impose the E&M guidelines on physicians, despite the harm that they know this causes, tells us something very important about their underlying motives. When you are in the business of covertly rationing healthcare, controlling the physicians is Job One. And as George Orwell observed for us, when you want to control the behavior of some population, a critical step is to control the mode, the rules, and even the very language of communication.

That physicians continue to comply with such oppressions, despite the harm they know this causes, and (with notable exceptions) without serious complaint, tells us something important about them, too. DrRich would rather not say what that is.


Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle! (and for next to nothing)

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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