Practice Management Toolbox

Prepare for major changes to E/M coding starting in 2021


Evaluation and Management (E/M) coding and guidelines are about to undergo the most significant changes since their implementation in the 1990s. For now, the changes are limited to new and established outpatient visits (CPT codes 99202-99205, 99211-99215) and will take place as of Jan. 1, 2021. Changes to all E/M codes are anticipated in the coming years.

The changes to the new and established office/outpatient codes will impact everyone in health care who assigns codes, manages health information, or pays claims including physicians and qualified health professionals, coders, health information managers, payers, health systems, and hospitals. The American Medical Association (AMA) has already released a preview of the CPT 2021 changes as well as free E/M education modules. They are planning to release more educational resources in the near future.

Why were changes needed?

The AMA developed the 2021 E/M changes in response to interest from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in reducing physician burden, simplifying documentation requirements, and making changes to payments for the E/M codes. CMS’s initial proposal was to collapse office visit E/M levels 2-5 to a single payment. While the new rates would have provided a modest increase for level 2 and 3 E/M codes, they would have cut reimbursement for the top-level codes by more than 50%. There was concern that these changes would adversely affect physicians caring for complex patients across medical specialties. There was an outcry from the physician community opposing CMS’s proposal, and the agency agreed to get more input from the public before moving forward.

The AMA worked with stakeholders, including the AGA and our sister GI societies, to create E/M guidelines that decrease documentation requirements while also continuing to differentiate payment based on complexity of care. CMS announced in the 2020 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) final rule that it would adopt the AMA’s proposal as well as their recommended relative values for 2021 CPT E/M codes. Of note, there will be modest payment increases for most office E/M codes beginning Jan. 1, 2021, which may benefit those who manage patients with complex conditions.


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