Practice Economics

New Hospitalist Billing Code Should Benefit Hospitalists, Patients


The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that within the year hospitalists will be assigned their own specialty designation code.

Illustration/Paul Juestrich; Photos

Illustration/Paul Juestrich; Photos

Up to 85% of hospitalists are currently designated internal medicine, says Ron Greeno, MD, MHM, founding member of SHM and chair of SHM’s Public Policy Committee, but when it comes to quality metrics—and resulting penalties and bonuses—without a way to distinguish themselves from their clinic-based peers, hospitalists have been disadvantaged.

“It is almost impossible to look good when compared to a world of mostly outpatient physicians,” says Dr. Greeno, chief strategy officer at IPC Healthcare, based in North Hollywood, Calif., and SHM’s president-elect.

Today, hospitalists get lumped together with their office-based internal medicine or primary care counterparts, says Scott Sears, MD, FHM, CPE, MBA, chief clinical officer for Sound Physicians, based in Tacoma, Wash. Yet, he says, “The quality metrics should be different because it’s a different scope of practice.”

For example, with the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) in recent years, hospitalists have been evaluated based on their patients’ HbA1c, a measure of their diabetic control over the three months prior to admission. But diabetic patients admitted to the hospital are there because they are sick and much less likely to have been well-managed.

“Hospitalists have had no control over their patients’ outpatient diabetes management during the time leading up to admissions, yet these admitted patients are compared to those in an outpatient setting, where their physicians do have control,” Dr. Sears says.

“[This] skews the data and real reporting patterns that are part of that specialty,” says Raemarie Jimenez, CPC, vice president of certifications and member development at AAPC, a professional organization for medical coders and more. “CMS wants the data it is using to be meaningful.”

Once the code is established, the choice to identify as a hospitalist will fall to individual physicians, hospitals, or hospitalist groups, Dr. Greeno says. The designation is noteworthy since hospital medicine does not have a board certification. Today, there are more than 48,000 hospitalists in the U.S., and the announcement comes as hospitalists celebrate 20 years as a specialty. SHM is calling 2016 the “Year of the Hospitalist.”

Ron Greeno, MD, MHM

Ron Greeno, MD, MHM

The decision to seek a hospitalist-specific billing code first arose at SHM several years ago, Dr. Greeno says, with discussions about the advantages, disadvantages, and possible unintended consequences of pursuing it. At the time, SHM chose to hold off, but that changed recently.

“A lot of thought was put into it, and two and a half years later, it’s very clear we made the right decision,” he says. “More and more depends on your data and a lot of different value-based measures. … The Public Policy Committee decided the benefits probably outweigh the potential risks.”

The billing code should make it easier to compare apples to apples, both for hospitalists and hospitals, and Dr. Sears says it should also enable patients to compare hospitalist performance to make better-informed healthcare decisions.

“When you have three or four hospitals in your community, you can compare inpatient hospitalist performance to determine who is providing the most consistent high-quality outcomes,” he says.

It may also enhance reimbursement, says Jimenez. Multiple providers often see patients in the hospital and handle their care. Two providers with the same designation may round on a patient on the same day and appear to CMS and private payors to deliver the same services.

“If a specialist is called in, or their family medicine provider is also seeing the patient, they will not be of the same designation, and that might help with some denials of payments that family or internal medicine physicians are getting,” she says.

Dr. Greeno also says the code may more effectively demonstrate to CMS that hospitalists do not have enough PQRS metrics to adequately qualify for value-based purchasing.

Yet challenges will remain that a specialty code cannot address. “A pediatric hospitalist may not want to be compared to an adult hospitalist. A critical-access hospitalist doesn’t want to be compared to a hospitalist in a tertiary academic medical center,” Dr. Sears says. “I don’t think it’s an end-all, be-all, but it’s a place to start.”

SHM will continue to actively push CMS to implement the code, Dr. Greeno says, and it will develop strategies for educating members to help them make the decision that is right for them or their group.

Jimenez believes SHM will be capable of doing much more with the data that emerge through robust use of the code.

“Right now, in the industry, big data is it, and the more you can segregate or report on the specifics of data, the better you are at identifying trends,” she says. “We don’t even know yet about clinical outcomes: Are hospitalists’ patients seeing a better outcome of patient experience versus waiting all day to see a family physician? Are there shorter admission times? Trying to improve patient outcomes and reduce costs are two things CMS is desperately interested in.”

Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.

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