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Three ‘bad news’ payment changes coming soon for physicians


Physicians are bracing for upcoming changes in reimbursement that may start within a few months. As doctors gear up for another wave of COVID, payment trends may not be the top priority, but some “uh oh” announcements in the fall of 2021 could have far-reaching implications that could affect your future.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a proposed rule in the summer covering key aspects of physician payment. Although the rule contained some small bright lights, the most important changes proposed were far from welcome.

Here’s what could be in store:

1. The highly anticipated Medicare Physician Fee Schedule ruling confirmed a sweeping payment cut. The drive to maintain budget neutrality forced the federal agency to reduce Medicare payments, on average, by nearly 4%. Many physicians are outraged at the proposed cut.

2. More bad news for 2022: Sequestration will be back. Sequestration is the mandatory, pesky, negative 2% adjustment on all Medicare payments. It had been put on hold and is set to return at the beginning of 2022.

Essentially, sequestration reduces what Medicare pays its providers for health services, but Medicare beneficiaries bear no responsibility for the cost difference. To prevent further debt, CMS imposes financially on hospitals, physicians, and other health care providers.

The Health Resources and Services Administration has funds remaining to reimburse for all COVID-related testing, treatment, and vaccines provided to uninsured individuals. You can apply and be reimbursed at Medicare rates for these services when COVID is the primary diagnosis (or secondary in the case of pregnancy). Patients need not be American citizens for you to get paid.

3. Down to a nail-biter: The final ruling is expected in early November. The situation smacks of earlier days when physicians clung to a precipice, waiting in anticipation for a legislative body to save them from the dreaded income plunge. Indeed, we are slipping back to the decade-long period when Congress kept coming to the rescue simply to maintain the status quo.

Many anticipate a last-minute Congressional intervention to save the day, particularly in the midst of another COVID spike. The promises of a stable reimbursement system made possible by the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act have been far from realized, and there are signs that the payment landscape is in the midst of a fundamental transformation.

Other changes proposed in the 1,747-page ruling include:


  • More telehealth services will be covered by Medicare, including home visits.
  • Tele–mental health services got a big boost; many restrictions were removed so that now the patient’s home is considered a permissible originating site. It also allows for audio-only (no visual required) encounters; the audio-only allowance will extend to opioid use disorder treatment services. Phone treatment is covered.
  • Permanent adoption of G2252: The 11- to 20-minute virtual check-in code wasn’t just a one-time payment but will be reimbursed in perpetuity.
  • Boosts in reimbursement for chronic care and principal care management codes, which range on the basis of service but indicate a commitment to pay for care coordination.
  • Clarification of roles and billing opportunities for split/shared visits, which occur if a physician and advanced practice provider see the same patient on a particular day. Prepare for new coding rules to include a modifier. Previously, the rules for billing were muddled, so transparency helps guide payment opportunities.
  • Delay of the appropriate use criteria for advanced imaging for 1 (more) year, a welcome postponement of the ruling that carries a significant administrative burden.
  • Physician assistants will be able to bill Medicare directly, and referrals to be made to medical nutrition therapy by a nontreating physician.
  • A new approach to patient cost-sharing for colorectal cancer screenings will be phased in. This area has caused problems in the past when the physician identifies a need for additional services (for example, polyp removal by a gastroenterologist during routine colonoscopy).


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