Winter is the time when many religions celebrate a renewal of the year as the days begin to get longer. On January 1 of each year in the United States we celebrate the official activation of new and revised Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes with which physicians report their services, and if they are lucky, they are compensated when these services are provided. In 2018, there are new sets of codes for photodynamic therapy (PDT) and lasers that all dermatologists should be aware of.
Use of PDT is said to date back as early as the 1900s,1 but it did not become a mainstream treatment modality in the United States until 2002 when the first CPT code for PDT (96567) became effective.2 Treatment involved application of a photosensitizing drug and its subsequent activation with a special blue light. Physicians faced an uphill battle for many years, as payers would either not reimburse the CPT code itself or the corresponding Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System supply code J7308, which became effective on January 1, 2004,3 to allow for reimbursement of a 354-mg, single-dose ampoule preparation of aminolevulinic acid hydrochloride as the photosensitizing drug. By deeming the procedure experimental and/or medically unnecessary, insurers often refused payment when 96567 was used—a situation that still occurs today with regard to PDT reimbursement, although less often. In my experience, this code was considered by the American Medical Association/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee to be a nonphysician work code with the assumption that the procedure was done by nonprovider staff (eg, medical assistant, licensed practical nurse, registered nurse) and that the physician did nothing but order the treatment.
In 2004, a methyl aminolevulinate cream that was activated with a red light source was brought to market; however, after failing to gain a substantial market share, the product is no longer available in the United States. In May of 2016, a nanoemulsion gel formulation of aminolevulinic acid hydrochloride 10% was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration4 for use with a red light source. Unlike 5-aminolevulinic acid hydrochloride solution, which was approved for application with no prior debridement of the skin,5 the new gel formulation was meant to be applied after degreasing with an ethanol- or isopropanol-soaked cotton pad and removal of any scaling or crusts, followed by roughening of the lesion surfaces (with care taken to avoid bleeding).4 The product must be administered by a health care provider and is reported using CPT codes 96573 and 96574, which are new in 2018 and are discussed in more detail below. Effective January 1, 2018, the Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System supply code for the product is J7345 (aminolevulinic acid hydrochloride gel for topical administration, 10% gel, 10 mg).6 A single tube contains 200 mg, so when an entire tube is used (which is typical), 200 units must be reported. Partial tubes may be used in some patients and should be reported appropriately based on actual usage.
The development of new CPT codes for PDT revealed a middle ground in which many physicians, including myself, have applied the photosensitizing drug themselves instead of a nonphysician provider in order to use their professional judgment to ensure the entire treatment area was covered and also allow for multiple applications of the drug to lesions that in their opinion may have warranted greater dosing, which led to the creation of CPT code 96573. The revision and refinement from one code to 3 (96567, 96573, and 96574) also involved rewording of the preamble for all 3 codes so that the phrase “premalignant and/or malignant lesions” was simplified to “premalignant lesions.” This change was made so that if and when this therapeutic approach is refined enough to be used on malignant lesions, new codes can be created to distinguish between the work performed for both types of lesions.
The new PDT codes include 96573 (photodynamic therapy by external application of light to destroy premalignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa with application and illumination/activation of photosensitizing drug[s] provided by a physician or other qualified healthcare professional, per day) and 96574 (debridement of premalignant hyperkeratotic lesion[s][ie, targeted curettage, abrasion] followed with photodynamic therapy by external application of light to destroy premalignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa with application and illumination/activation of photosensitizing drug[s] provided by a physician or other qualified healthcare professional, per day). According to the 2018 CPT manual,2 these codes should be used to report nonsurgical treatment of cutaneous lesions using PDT (ie, external application of light to destroy premalignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa by activation of photosensitizing drug). A treatment session is defined as an application of a photosensitizer to all lesions within an anatomic area (eg, face, scalp) with or without debridement of all premalignant hyperkeratotic lesions in that area followed by illumination and activation with an appropriate light source. Providers should not report codes for debridement (11000, 11001, 11004, 11005), lesion shaving (11300–11313), biopsy (11100, 11101), or lesion excision (11400–11471) within the treatment area on the same day that PDT is administered.2
With the inclusion of these new PDT codes, the older code 96567 (photodynamic therapy by external application of light to destroy premalignant lesions of the skin and adjacent mucosa with application and illumination/activation of photosensitive drug[s], per day)—which is the base or parent code of the set—should only be used for reporting PDT when a physician or other qualified health care professional is not directly involved in the delivery of the service. Code 96573 is an upgrade to 96567 to account for physician work, while code 96574 captures the extra work of disruption of the skin barrier by debridement.
The novelty here is that old codes often are replaced when new codes come along. The reader should be aware of the distinct differences, as the total value expressed in relative value units for code 96567 is lower than it was in 2017 (3.24 vs 3.80), while the 2 newer codes have higher values (codes 96573 and 96574, 5.37 and 6.92, respectively). Additionally, the reader should note that only one of the 3 codes can be used on a given anatomic area (ie, face and scalp) on a given day. In general, a single-dose package of either of the approved photosensitizing drugs can usually treat an entire anatomic area. The codes themselves are not reserved for specific anatomic areas, but the US Food and Drug Administration clearances are for only face and scalp for both drugs, so the use of more than 2 PDT codes on a given day might raise payer queries.
Whatever you do, be sure your documentation includes an explicit notation about who applied the photosensitizing drug and the technique used for debridement, if performed. Code 96574 explicitly refers to targeted curettage and abrasion but does not include other destructive modalities (eg, chemical peeling), which an auditor may or may not consider an acceptable method of debridement. Personally, I will not be using peels as a justifier for this code.