Practice Economics

Clear Identification Needed for Hospitalists in Medicare


In recent months, numerous articles have come out targeting high-billing physicians—looking for smoking guns in recently released 2012 Medicare fee-for-service physician claims data. These data include both the amount each individual physician billed and the amount Medicare paid on average for services performed by all physicians treating Medicare beneficiaries.

Many physician groups, including the AMA, criticized the data release as having significant limitations, including clinical and billing practice realities that confound the layperson’s understanding of the data’s implications. Still, there is much physicians can learn by exploring this information, particularly those in a still-growing field like hospital medicine (HM).

There is no clear method to identify hospitalists within these data. Hospitalists are dispersed throughout their respective board certifications—internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics. The designations come directly from the Medicare specialty billing code; the code associated with the largest number of services becomes that provider’s de facto specialty. For the majority of providers, this will correspond with their board certification and their professional identity. A hospitalist’s unique practice is lost within these general identifiers.

However, the contours of that unique practice may provide some tools to identify hospitalists, albeit roughly, within the data and in the absence of a specialty billing code. Things like practice location and commonly billed Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) codes can help sketch the boundaries of the field. Certainly, any classification methodology will have its share of imperfections and may exclude individuals who would otherwise identify as hospitalists. Regardless, such an exercise could identify trends in hospital medicine while providing a better understanding of the field as a whole.

HM does not have the traditional hallmark signifiers—board certification and Medicare specialty billing code—used by many specialties and subspecialties to frame their fields and to classify and compare physicians. The Medicare specialty billing code is a unique code applied to Medicare billing claims that tells Medicare exactly how the provider would like to be identified.

Because of its relative specificity and ready accessibility, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) uses the specialty billing code to create specialty comparison groups in pay-for-performance programs. Under the value-based payment modifier, hospitalists are compared against outpatient internal medicine or family medicine physicians, which makes them seem all the more expensive and less efficient.

SHM has been attuned to this particular issue since the early days of the physician value-based payment modifier. For nearly two years, SHM has repeatedly admonished CMS to compare hospitalists against other hospitalists in order for a pay-for-performance scheme to fairly and reasonably evaluate quality and efficiency. CMS acknowledged that many specialties and subspecialties may be masked within the current listing of Medicare specialty billing codes but yielded only so far as to say that aggrieved specialties can apply for their own code. SHM, for its part, applied for a specialty billing code for hospitalists in May 2014.

SHM has been actively exploring the data and looking at ways to identify hospitalists within this Medicare data. There’s an inherent value to this sort of self-reflection—it explains who we are and where we have been.

More importantly, it helps inform where we are going.

Joshua Lapps is SHM’s government relations manager.

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