Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 30, 2013

Did you slip and fall into your garbage can? There’s a code for that!

By JAMES H. "SMOKEY" SHOTT
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— The Affordable Care Act has forced insurance costs higher, encouraged many employers to bail out of providing health plans for their employees or cut employees or reduce hours to below the full-time threshold to avoid the higher costs, and has unleashed thousands of pages of new regulations. But intrepid federal bureaucrats charge ahead with even more requirements for providers, one of which is a revamping of the codes used to identify the medical services that providers use to bill insurers.

Currently, there about 18,000 such codes and one might be fooled into believing that is enough. But the devoted folks who get paid to generate new codes have been hard at work revamping the code system and the new list contains nearly eight times the former number, checking in at 140,000 medical codes. The feds reason that more specific information is needed to adequately communicate what doctors and hospitals do for their patients, as well as what patients may have done to require a visit to a provider.

New codes describe precisely what bone was broken, or which eye was blackened, and tell insurers whether your injury occurred in, for example, an opera house, an art gallery, on a squash court or in one of nine locations in and around a mobile home.

Some of them push the limits of propriety. Code R46.1 is for “bizarre personal appearance,” while code R46.0 is for “very low level of personal hygiene.” Others tell insurers whether an injury caused by walking into a lamppost was the “initial encounter,” or a “subsequent encounter.”

There is a group of codes that clarify whether you were injured while sewing, ironing, crocheting, doing handcrafts, knitting, or my personal favorite, playing a brass instrument. (Brass players are now churning out imaginative scenarios for how these injuries might have occurred.) There is also a code indicating that a patient’s injury occurred in a chicken coup.

Speaking of birds, there are 72 codes for patients who have run afoul of these creatures, and being bitten by a parrot has a different code than if said parrot flies into you, or if you are bitten or flown into by a macaw or a goose. There are nine different codes for each of the six different species of bird.

The folks that developed the system — generally known as ICD-10, for International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision — say “the codes will provide a more exact and up-to-date accounting of diagnoses and hospital inpatient procedures, which could improve payment strategies and care guidelines,” and there use is scheduled to be required in two years. Pat Brooks, senior technical adviser at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services explains that “It’s for accuracy of data and quality of care.”

As a side note, health care reform, known more commonly as Obamacare, is deemed so important that the furloughs that befell air traffic controllers did not extend to Obamacare regulators and code generators, according to Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, who said that his office has not cut its workers’ hours and pay as a result of the automatic budget cuts that went into effect in March. This information should help convince doubters that the pain of the sequester is a conscious political choice of the administration, and not a requirement of the sequester.

While federal bureaucrats are busy, busy, busy improving the health care system with mountains of new regulations and charge codes, some of the people who actually provide care are taking different approaches, some of them good, and some not.

A recent Deloitte Center for Health Solutions survey of more than 600 doctors reveals that six in 10 may retire earlier than they had planned, and will do so in the next three years, due to the effects of the Affordable Care Act on how they practice medicine.

Further, many providers will leave the private sector to work for hospitals or accountable care organizations, and others are fighting back against massive government interference in the doctor-patient relationship by reverting to an older direct primary care model that eschews health insurance in favor of fee-for-services, such as an office visit for $20 or a house call for $100. Some offer a membership plan where patients pay a set fee per month for physician services.

Getting away from health insurance, government regulations and other requirements reduces costs substantially, allowing doctors to provide services at affordable prices, and has the further advantage of allowing doctors to escape “assembly line medicine,” all of which may benefit the relationship between providers and patients. In contrast to Obamacare, this is a real improvement in the system.

Finally, even supporters of this Rube Goldberg-like contrivance are starting to realize its boundless weaknesses. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mon., one of the Affordable Care Act’s designers and strong backers, told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a Senate committee hearing that he sees “a huge train wreck coming down.”

It’s a shame Sen. Baucus and the other blind supporters didn’t do their homework before the measure passed the Congress, and save the country much pain and suffering. But perhaps it’s not too late to reverse course.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.