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Advance care planning benefit presents challenges


Overcoming hurdles through experience

Using the advance care planning benefit has been easier said than done in his practice, according to Carl R. Olden, MD, a family physician in Yakima, Wash. The logistics of scheduling and patient reluctance are contributing to low usage of the new codes, said Dr. Olden, a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians board of directors.

Between Sept. 1, 2016, and Aug. 31, 2017, the family medicine, primary care, internal medicine, and pulmonary medicine members of Dr. Olden’s network who provide end-of-life counseling submitted billing for a total of 106,160 Medicare visits. Of those visits, the 99497 code was submitted only 32 times, according to data provided by Dr. Olden.

At Dr. Olden’s 16-physician practice, there are no registered nurses to help set up and start Medicare wellness visits, which the advance care planning session benefit is designed to fit within, he said.

“Most of those Medicare wellness visits are driven by having a registered nurse do most of the work,” he said. “[For us] to schedule a wellness visit, it’s mostly physician work and to do a 30-minute wellness visit, most of us can see three patients in that 30-minute slot, so it ends up not being very cost effective.”

Dr. Carl R. Olden is a family physician in Yakima, Wash., and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians board of directors.

Dr. Carl R. Olden

In addition, patients are often hesitant to focus on advance care planning during visits rather than medical conditions and treatment questions.

“Most of my Medicare patients are folks that have four to five chronic medical conditions, and for them to make a 30-minute visit to the office and not talk about any of those conditions but to talk about home safety and advance directives and fall prevention, it’s hard for them to understand that,” he said.

Dr. Newman stresses that while the billing approach takes time to learn, the codes can be weaved into regular practice with some preparation and planning. At her practice, she primarily uses the codes for patients with challenging changes in their health status, sometimes setting up meetings in advance and, other times, conducting a spur-of-the-moment conversation.

“It’s a wonderful benefit,” she said. “I’m not surprised it’s taking awhile to take hold. The reason is you have to prepare for these visits. It takes preparation, including a chart review.”

A common misconception is that the visit must be scheduled separately and cannot be added to another visit, she said. Doctors can bill the advance care planning codes on the same day as an evaluation and management service. For instance, if a patient is accompanied by a family member and seen for routine follow-up, the physician can discuss the medical conditions first and later have a discussion about advance care planning. When billing, the physician can then use an evaluation and management code for the part of the visit related to the patient’s medical conditions and also bill for the advance care planning discussion using the new Medicare codes, Dr. Newman said.

“You’re allowed to use a modifier to attach to it to get paid for both on the same day,” she said. She suggested checking local Medicare policy for the use of the appropriate modifier, usually 26. “One thing that’s important to understand is there’s a lot of short discussions about advanced care planning that doesn’t fit the code. So if a patient wants to have a 5-minute conversation – that happens a lot – these will not be billable or counted under this new benefit. Fifteen minutes is the least amount of time that qualifies for 99497.”

Dr. Sweet said that she expects greater use of the codes as more doctors become aware of how they can be used.

“Once people use it a time or two, they will use it a lot more,” Dr. Sweet said. “It takes time to change, and it takes time to make time to do the things we need to do. But especially, as we move into high-value care, something like this hopefully, [doctors] will embrace.”

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