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Category Archives: Certified Coding Specialist Exam Prep

What You Need to Know About Coding Using EMRs and Encoding Software

I haven’t been perusing as many coding sites and Facebook pages recently as I was a couple of years ago, but I did recently come across a post that captured my attention.  Someone was asking if there was a way to get trained in a popular electronic medical record (EMR) to help them meet the requirements of a job.  It seems many employers are looking for work experience with a certain EMR before considering a person for a position.  Is this fair?  Well, it may not seem fair if you’ve never worked as a coder, but if you have, chances are pretty good you’ve had exposure to some of the major EMR software vendors.  For those of you who don’t have any practical EMR experience, here’s what you need to know.

Is it reasonable to require EMR experience?
First of all, if you’ve never coded before and your coding school didn’t have a relationship with an EMR vendor allowing you to learn the system, any reasonable hiring manager is not going to expect you to have experience.  And if they aren’t reasonable, then you don’t want to work for them anyway (problem solved!).  If I pick up your resume and see you have taken some coding classes and have never worked in the healthcare field but are “proficient” in EMR software, I am going to have more than a few questions for you.  How did you get your EMR experience?  Which systems did you use?  What did you like or not like about it?  In other words, I won’t believe you have experience with it and I will try to weed that out of you.  Or even worse, I may be inundated with resumes and feel like you’re lying about something on the resume and I may not have the time or energy to do any investigating.  Your resume may be relegated to the “no” pile.

Fact: your employer will train you
Here’s a fun fact.  Even if you’ve worked as a coder for 2 years using a certain EMR software, you will have to have training at your new facility.  You may think you know everything there is to know about a certain EMR software, but they are all customizable.  As a consultant, I’ve used the same EMR software at several clients and they are all a little different.  You may find documents stored in different places.  Your favorite EMR feature at Hospital A may not have been “turned on” at Hospital B.  So expect to be trained on the same software you’ve already been using every time you change employers.

EMRs are from Mars, encoders are from Venus
EMRs aren’t the same as encoders.  Of course the EMR is where you will find the medical record documentation, but it is also where you will find financial information and abstracted data.  Encoders and computer assisted coding (CAC) software are usually separate from the EMR.  As a matter of fact, there aren’t a lot of EMR vendors who are also in the business of encoder software.  That makes two different kinds of systems you need to be aware of.  But have no fear: while it’s a plus if you have been trained on an encoder, you can expect your employer to train you there too.

You need to understand interfaces
Rather than obsessing over how to get trained on a particular EMR or encoder, here’s something more important for you to focus on: you need to understand software interfaces.  Because your EMR and encoder are coming from two different vendors and they have to talk to each other, they rely on interfaces.  How that’s set up is not important to you (although it’s very important to the information technology department), but how and why you enter data the way you do is based on interfaces.  I’ve coded for lots of hospitals with lots of different computer systems, but in general, here’s how it works:

  1. You pull up the patient in the EMR.
  2. If you work with a CAC product, you launch the CAC by clicking a button in the EMR.  This opens the CAC using an interface, so that it automatically pulls up the patient you are working on in the EMR and displays medical record documentation for coding.
  3. If you don’t have a CAC, you review the medical record documentation in the EMR and then launch the encoder using a button in the EMR.
  4. Once you are in the CAC/encoder, you code the record.  This software allows you to look up codes and save them to a list.  When you’re done, you click a complete button, and then you find yourself back in the EMR in the abstracting screens.
  5. If the interface is working properly, everything you entered in the CAC/encoder is shown on your abstracting screens.  This is also where you can assign surgeons and dates to procedures as well as any other abstracted data your facility chooses to collect.
  6. You send the account to billing in the EMR by indicating the account is complete.
(Most) EMRs don’t have grouper software
Groupers are the magic software that calculate DRGs and APCs based on assigned codes.  Grouper logic is something that is built into CAC/encoder software, but not into EMR software.  If you ever need to make a change to codes to rebill an account, you can’t just change the code in most EMRs.  It’s pretty standard practice to reopen the account, relaunch the CAC/encoder, make corrections, send them back to the EMR through the interface, and then send for rebill.  This concept is something that many coders don’t understand and, I would argue, this concept is more important than knowing the ins and outs of any particular EMR product as a new hire.
Knowing how to code is more important than anything
After all this, the most important thing you need to know to get a coding job is how to code.  Your employer can teach you everything I’ve mentioned above specific to your facility.  And they can also work with you on enhancing your coding skills.  But it’s more important for you to focus on coding, coding guidelines, and a cursory background in coding reimbursement than it is for you to know an EMR inside-out.  

Coder Coach

Newsflash: The AMA is Fighting ICD-10 – is my Blog to Blame?

Okay, so it’s not really news that the American Medical Association is showing R45.4 (Irritability and anger) and R45.5 (Hostility) when it comes to ICD-10.  But are their R45.82 (worries) really worth all the R45.83 (Excessive crying of child, adolescent, or adult)?

Okay, all kidding aside, I hate to admit that blogs like mine might be partly to blame for the backlash, but are they?  In learning ICD-10-CM, it’s just not fun to write blogs and articles about how the ICD-9-CM code for unspecified hypertension will be I10 in ICD-10.  Okay, bad example.  ICD-10 gives us I10 (hypertension).  Oh wait, you’ve heard that one? 

I’ll go out on a limb here and just say it.  Coding is boring.  But I love it anyway and find it fascinating and go out of my way to try to make learning coding fun and enjoyable.  And since in my day job I don’t get to spend a lot of time reflecting on the fun and entertaining external cause codes, I have decided to take to my blog to explore some of the more entertaining ICD-10 codes and inject some humor where I can.  And it’s hard.  Because, as I mentioned, coding is boring.

But with all of the hype on ICD-10 we’ve managed to fool a lot of people into thinking that it’s not really boring no-nonsense work and that what we do is actually very trivial and unimportant.  In an April interview on Fox News, Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) gave several arguments against ICD-10-CM implementation in the United States and several examples of why the new coding system is ridiculous and unnecessary, including the various codes for injuries by turkeys and dog bites by specific breeds of dogs (BTW – dog bites by breed codes do not exist). 

Indeed, there are some very silly external cause codes, but in an article by the American Health Information Management Association, which wasn’t as well publicized as Congressman Poe’s interview, AHIMA states that there is no national mandate to report external cause codes in ICD-10-CM.  In fact, if providers are not reporting E codes in ICD-9-CM, they won’t be required to report external cause codes in ICD-10-CM.  And since the 1500 billing form, which is used by physicians to report codes to Medicare, only has space for four diagnosis codes, the external cause codes are not likely to play a large role in pro-fee coding and billing.  And then all that’s left is those boring codes in the remaining ICD-10 chapters.

But why isn’t anyone pointing that out?  Well, I suppose it’s just more fun to talk about a code for being pecked by a chicken.  Or struck by a chicken (is that a live chicken or, say, a frozen chicken from the supermarket?!).  But in reality, we are training coders on the important enhancements that ICD-10 coding brings.  Here are a couple of important “for instances” for you:

  • Somewhat simplified sepsis coding (okay, so they couldn’t do it all, but we’ll take somewhat simplified over super confusing any day)
  • One diagnosis code for admission for vaccination (the procedure code indicates the specific vaccine given)
  • OB codes that actually make sense – most of them classify conditions by trimester rather than that “delivered with antepartum complication” nonsense
  • New and specific codes for subsequent acute myocardial infarction (AMI) that occurs within the timeframe of an initial AMI
  • Codes for blood alcohol level (here in Colorado we’re waiting for the blood marijuana content codes – I’m pretty sure Washington is interested too)
  • Bye-bye to encounter for therapy codes (talk about administrative burden – insurance companies hate those V codes for admission for physical/occupational/speech therapy codes; the new code system has a way of denoting that an injury is in the healing phase)
  • Combination codes for diabetic complications (because half the time coders forget to code the second code anyway)

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that physicians won’t be impacted at all because they will.  We will be asking them to document more clearly but in general we want documentation that really should already be there.  It’s nice to know whether the left or right femur is broken.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not just the coders who are interested.  And even though physicians won’t have to code ICD-10-PCS procedure codes, we will be prompting them for more specific documentation within operative reports. 

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the volume of codes.  Yes, there are a lot more ICD-10-CM codes than ICD-9-CM codes.  That’s to be expected when they create codes for left, right, bilateral, and unspecified where applicable.  And my favorite quote regarding this issue came from Don Asmonga of AHIMA at a conference last spring: “There are a lot of words in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you use all of them.”  Indeed.  There are many codes that we will never use.  And coders aren’t supposed to memorize codes anyway.  In the training I’ve done thus far, coders have actually expressed that having more codes is better – they are able to better drill down to what’s really going on with the patient instead of sticking a junky nonspecific code on the case.

So if you come across a physician who is arguing against ICD-10 implementation, I would suggest that you put the kibosh on the fun code talk and get straight to the boring benefits.  Will ICD-10 impact patient care?  Probably not as directly as nurse finding a medication error before meds are administered.  But the data that is collected on the back end will have implications for future quality initiatives; in fact many of the quality initiatives coming up depend on ICD-10 data.  Besides, even the boring ICD-10-CM codes are more exciting than the same old boring ICD-9-CM codes that no other industrialized nation in the WORLD uses anymore.  I mean, I hate to play the peer pressure card, but seriously, we should be leaders in in medicine – and in collecting medical data.  Who else is on board?
Coder Coach

Reflections of a Coder Coach: Ready to Get Back to Normal

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that my job hasn’t been “normal” for the last six years.  Right around this time six years ago is when I first went to AHIMA’s ICD-10 Academy and earned my status as a trainer.  Creating and presenting ICD-10 training materials came soon after that and it wasn’t until recently I realized that my job hasn’t been normal for the last six years.  And since I’ve only known my husband for four years, one could argue that he’s never known me when I’m normal… er.. at least when my job is normal!

As I look around the articles and social media related to coding, a lot has changed in this industry in the six or seven years that I’ve put myself out there as the Coder Coach.  When I first started blogging and meeting once a month with coding students and wanna-be’s, there weren’t a lot of people out there looking to mentor coders.  Now, my voice is one of many as people who never heard of coding before ICD-10 jump on the bandwagon to get a piece of the action.  There have been questions about certifications – which ones to get and how to make sure ICD-10 certification requirements are met.  There have been questions about how to code things we never had to think about before – initial vs. subsequent encounters for injuries and poisonings and root operations based on procedure intent.

I have to be honest and say that in my abnormal day-to-day life as a coder over the last few years, I’ve had trouble finding my voice and giving advice as a coding mentor.  I no longer feel qualified to tell a coder how to break into the industry because things are so different than they were 20 years ago when I got my start and coding is something that many people are now aware of – not something that people kind of fall into anymore.  Since I fill my days adding to my own intellectual bank by researching procedures and learning how to explain them – and how to code them – I wonder what it is that new coders need right now.  And for everyone who is trying to learn coding, I just want to reach out and give them all a virtual hug because this is, in my humble opinion, about the hardest time to learn this industry.

This week I am working on something I haven’t done in years.  I’m reading the Final Rule for the 2016 MS-DRG changes.  That is something I used to read and summarize every year for my clients.  And even though the codes are different and there are some new sections to read in this super long file, I had a moment of realization, a sigh of relief if you will, that this… this is normal!  After we flip the switch on October 1 and everyone starts using ICD-10 (because I have pretty much zero faith in our congressmen to accomplish any earth shattering legislation in two weeks when they’re so focused on Donald Trump’s run for president), I’m sure there will be a few things that don’t go as planned.  But for coders, it’s a time for us to return to “normal.”  I miss having a general confidence in assigning codes (although this has gotten better as I train more coders!).  I miss code updates!  Oh, how I miss those code updates!  We’ve had frozen ICD code sets for four years!  I’ve been following the recommendations made to the Coordination and Maintenance Committee and I can’t wait to see which changes they decide to adopt on October 1, 2016.

And maybe when the dust settles a bit and we see how many people really want to stick with coding in ICD-10, I will find my voice again as the Coder Coach.  I sincerely hope so, because I miss meeting people with a passion to learn about my passion and giving them little nuggets of wisdom to help them make a difference in this industry.

Coder Coach

Diversity – and Flexibility – is Key

I’ve been pretty quiet lately around the blogosphere and some may even think I’ve disappeared.  And for about a year, up until about October, I really had disappeared a bit to plan and live through my wedding.  After a couple months of an identity crisis, I’ll announce here that Coder Coach Kristi Stanton has disappeared and the new Coder Coach is now Kristi Pollard.  The new last name will take a couple of decades to get used to, but I am hopeful that if I’m quoted in the future, it won’t be as the first actress to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer. True story.

For the last couple of months I’ve been waiting for inspiration to strike so I could once again become passionate about the blog.  I’ve been observing.  Don’t get me wrong, with all the legislation and talk about more ICD-10 delays, I’ve also been writing my congressmen, participating in Twitter rallies (follow me at @codercoach), and making posts on Facebook, but I’ve spent more time just watching.  Watching the industry.  Watching my colleagues.  Watching hopeful coding professionals trying to break their way in.  And this is what I’ve deduced: if you want to make it in the coding field, you’ve got to diversify.

It didn’t take long after the ICD-10 delay was announced in March to see the fallout.  Some of our clients stayed the course while others postponed some training.  There have been very few canceled trainings all together for ICD-10. A couple of months ago, I dusted off a couple of our CPT training manuals that hadn’t been updated in awhile to get them ready to train in 2015.  It was comforting to fall back into something that still required the skill of a senior consultant that was a sure thing.  Of course, I hope for a future with ICD-10 and will continue to advocate for it, but there’s always CPT as well.

Here is my message to the coding students and aspiring coders.  Coding is not steady and it’s not comfortable.  Even without ICD-10, annual updates to the coding industry can rock your world (case in point all the new lower GI endoscopy CPT codes for 2015).  This field has a tendency to attract detail-oriented people who like to organize everything in pretty and neat little black and white buckets.  As coders, we don’t like gray areas.  Well, as a coder, be ready for gray, purple, and yellow polka-dotted areas.  You need to be flexible.  You need to be ready when the House throws language into a bill at midnight the night before a vote that will impact your daily work.  And you need a backup plan just in case.

I feel a bit like a financial adviser as I tell you you need to diversify.  DI.  VER.  SI.  FY.  Don’t put all your coding eggs in one basket.  As someone who has coded in ICD-9-CM, ICD-10-CM/PCS, CPT, and HCPCS, I understand what I’m asking you to do.  It’s not easy.  They all have different rules and methodologies.  I understand that I’m asking you for a lifetime of education.  But the payoff for doing the work is immeasurable.  And the more you have exposure to, the more marketable you are as a coder.

Coder Coach

I don’t want to live in a world where Ebola is sold out at the Giant Microbe store – and there’s no code for it

There is a super cute little toy shop in Coeur d’Alene, ID called Shenanigan’s Toy Emporium that sells vintage toys and other unique items.  When traveling there on business, we usually make a stop in to shop from their wall of amazing salt water taffy and check out their selection of toys that don’t come with a power button.  You know, the kind of toys we had prior to the Atari and Game Boy era!

Shenanigan’s also has a great display of giant microbes – small plush renderings of everything from the common cold to diarrhea.  I am still marveling at how they could create a plush toy out of liquid stool!  I’m sure it’s just the geeky coder in me (and my colleagues), but we decided to buy a few and put them out during our training sessions along with our baskets of Play Dough, pipe cleaners, and candy (we like to have FUN in our training sessions!).  Needless to say, they were a big hit with our clients and we noticed on one of the tags that there was a website where we could order more.  By now your interest is surely piqued, so be sure to check out the online Giant Microbes store.

You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking right about now, which is, wouldn’t these giant microbes make great white elephant gifts for Christmas?  My thoughts immediately went to what would be appropriate for my family’s white elephant gift exchange.  Don’t worry, my family has a great sense of humor – there’s still a copy of Pamela Anderson’s novel (yes, she wrote one) complete with the “naughty” pages clipped together courtesy of my grandmother who was sheltering her daughter from the filthy parts.  And what better gift for someone in 2014 than the Ebola virus?  There’s just one problem.

Sold out.

Apparently I am not the only person who thinks that Ebola would make a great Christmas gift.  It’s a sign of recent headlines that this virus, which is actually kind of cute in plush form, is unavailable.  What’s even more worrisome given that this was the year Ebola came to the US, is that we don’t have an ICD-9-CM code to report it.  Here’s the best we can do in ICD-9:

  • 065.8, Other specified arthropod-borne hemorrhagic fever
  • 078.89, Other specified diseases due to virus

What about ICD-10-CM?  How about this?

  • A98.4, Ebola virus disease

YESSSSSS!  Way more specific!

In previous years as we’ve prepped for ICD-10 implementation, the opponents have given a laundry list of extensive and admittedly ridiculous (yet fun!) ICD-10 codes that begged the question, why do we really need this?  And this year, Ebola was delivered to our health system and we have nonspecific codes to report it.  But in ICD-10, we have a very specific code.  Hmm.  Perhaps this ICD-10 thing really could help with reporting and impact patient care.  Just a thought.

So Santa, if I can’t have Ebola for Christmas this year, could I please have ICD-10 so that I can code it for those people who did get it?

Author’s Note: I am not affiliated with Shenanigan’s Toy Emporium or in any way. I am just a really big fan!
Coder Coach

So Many Books, So Little Time- Part 2

ICD-9-CM Has Procedure Codes?
In part two of my blog series about coding systems, I’d like to present ICD-9-CM, Volume 3. If you’ve taken classes that are preparing you to take the CPC exam, it might be news to you that ICD-9-CM has three volumes. Or procedure codes. So that’s it: volume 3 of ICD-9-CM is procedure codes. 

Hospitals Use It
In part one of this series, I mentioned that HIPAA defines which code sets are used for each health care setting. Volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes are only mandated for hospital inpatient claims. They are a major factor in the determining DRG assignments, which drive hospital inpatient payments. 
Some hospitals also assign ICD-9-CM volume 3 codes for hospital outpatients as well. This is solely for data collection purposes but the codes get “scrubbed” off the outpatient bill and don’t go to the insurance company. ICD-9-CM codes may be used to analyze volume of a particular type of procedure performed either as inpatient or outpatient. For example, most appendectomies are performed as outpatients, but if there are complications, a patient may need to be admitted as an inpatient. Hospitals often pull procedure volume for physician credentialing or planning purposes (e.g., to determine if a new specialty unit or more operating rooms are needed).  As a coding manager, which was a long time ago, I wrote reports that pulled data based solely on ICD-9 codes. We didn’t use CPT codes to pull data at all at that time. 
Why You May Have Never Heard of It
If you’ve never heard of volume 3 codes in school, then it’s likely that you are taking a coding course for physician coding and billing. Physicians don’t use volume 3 of ICD-9. But as mentioned above, hospital coders are using it and if a hospital requires its coders to assign ICD-9 codes on outpatients, they are coding procedures using both ICD-9 and CPT procedure codes. That isn’t as complex as it sounds because most hospitals use encoder software that has a crosswalk between the two code sets. Unfortunately, any time you try to map from one code set to another, there can be errors. If they were easily translatable, we wouldn’t need two code sets!

Here’s another critical tip: if you are buying ICD-9-CM code books, it can be super confusing because there are various publishers and lots of code books with different-yet-similar titles.  If you purchase an ICD-9-CM code book for physicians, it will have only volumes 1 and 2.  If you buy ICD-9-CM for hospitals, you get all three volumes, or the complete ICD-9-CM code set.

What the Codes Look Like
The code format of volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes is different from other code sets with two numeric digits followed by a decimal point and then one or two more numeric digits. The code category ranges are 00-99. It’s the most straightforward of all of the HIPAA code sets. 
Some examples of volume 3 codes are:

  • 47.0, Appendectomy
  • 36.97, Insertion of drug-eluting coronary artery stent(s)
Commentary on ICD-9 Volume 3 and Argument for ICD-10
If you weren’t trained on ICD-9-CM procedure codes, let me tell you, you aren’t missing much. It is the least robust of all of the coding systems. There just simply aren’t enough three to four-digit codes to keep up with rapidly evolving healthcare technology. We have run out of available codes. This is my biggest argument for ICD-10 implementation. I hate to say that we can live without a diagnosis code update, but in comparison to procedures, the need isn’t as great. We absolutely need a new procedural coding system for ICD in order to keep up with emerging technologies. Plus – and this drives the OCD coder in me crazy – there are hernia repair codes in the eye procedure chapter because it’s the only chapter with available codes!  
If you were trained in CPT first and have to learn ICD-9 volume 3 codes, you may find it very difficult, but only because you are trying to find codes as specific as CPT. You will be disappointed because ICD-9 codes aren’t that specific. While there are appendectomy codes in CPT for open and laparoscopic approaches, ICD-9 appendectomy codes don’t differentiate between open and scope procedures. 
Who Needs to Learn it?
If you’re planning to take a certification exam, here are the certifications that have traditionally tested on volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes, but keep an eye on test details for the testing switch over to ICD-10:

  • CCA (Certified Coding Associate) from AHIMA
  • CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) from AHIMA
  • CIC (Certified Inpatient Coder) from AAPC (new)
The COC (Certified Outpatient Coder), formerly called the CPC-H (Certified Professional Coder Hospital-based) does not focus at all on ICD-9 volume 3 codes. It does focus on hospital-related CPT codes and, of course ICD-9 diagnosis codes because we all use that. 

The bottom line on volume 3 codes, in my opinion, is that it is a coding system with a limited shelf life that isn’t worth learning at this point in the game if we really move forward with ICD-10-CM/PCS in October (or unless you are planning to take one of the above-mentioned certification exams before ICD-10 is implemented).  There are enough existing coders to focus on the ICD-9 back work that will be involved after ICD-10 implementation and since this code set is only required for hospitals, it affects a pretty small population of coders overall.  But hey, at least you now know what it is and can have an intelligent conversation about it. 
Next up: Level I of HCPCS (AKA CPT)…

Coder Coach

Twelve Codes of Christmas: On the Seventh Day of the Coder’s Christmas (F40.00)

I have decided to start limiting my daily news intake to no more than 30 minutes per day.  This is mainly because the news has been so depressing lately and although I think it’s important to be informed, I think there comes a point when you just have to tune out before you decide to never leave your house again. 

I was looking through some old photos recently  and came across this old one of my dog Ginger.  Ginger is no longer with us, but I still have some great pics of her sweet little face.  This one struck me not only because of her expression, but also because of the bows.  No, I didn’t put bows in my dog’s ears on a regular basis.  I would take her to the groomer before the holidays and she always came back looking frilly and cute – with bows. It was always a test to see how long those bows would last before she shook her head enough or tried to pull them out with her paws.  Taking Ginger to the groomer was an event.  She was okay as long as we got in the car and headed north, because that meant she was on her way to see my parents and her favorite person – Grandpa.  But if we headed west, there were only two options: the vet and the groomer.  She wasn’t a fan of either.

So for the seventh day of Christmas, I dug out this picture of my Christmas pup for our daily carol and code:

  • I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day but Wouldn’t Leave my House (F40.00, Agoraphobia, unspecified).

Incidentally, Ginger was always up for leaving the house on Christmas if food was being carted to the car.  She always expected that once the food was packed up, she would be leashed up and we would join the party at a family member’s house!
Coder Coach

So Many Books, So Little Time – Part 3

Yes, it’s true.  There are so many books and so little time, I haven’t even had time to blog for the last two weeks because I had my nose in two of them.  Thank God for smartphones and long waits at the car wash, or who knows how much longer it would been before I posted again!

In my first post of this series, I gave one of my favorite quotes: “ICD is from Mars, HCPCS is from Venus.”  So let’s move on to Venus for a bit.  Don’t worry, we’ll be back to Mars, but I like to talk about the present before I talk about the future (ICD-10), so let’s get on with it.  I apologize for the length of this post, but I have a lot to say today!

Three Levels of HCPCS
The Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) has three different levels and just to make things more interesting, Level I is not usually called HCPCS, it’s called CPT.  The Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) was developed and is maintained by the American Medical Association (AMA).

By Physicians for Physicians
What makes CPT so unique is that it is the only coding system in the HIPAA-approved code sets that is developed by physicians for physicians.  The codes you see in the CPT code book are the result of various medical and surgical societies coming together with the AMA to decide which procedures deserve their very own CPT codes.  Every year at the AMA’s CPT Symposium, coders from around the country gather in Chicago to listen to these physicians present the coding updates for the coming year.  It’s an expensive but valuable conference that I think every coder should experience at least once.  

CPT codes are primarily used by physicians to report procedures and services performed in every possible setting where a physician – or qualified health practitioner – may see  a patient: his office, the hospital, a clinic, a nursing home, etc. But it doesn’t stop there.  CPT is also used to report hospital outpatient procedures. Of course, since there are still a lot of procedures that are performed solely as inpatient, hospital coders use a small number of CPT codes in comparison to pro-fee (physician) coders. 

Three within Three

So now that we know that CPT is one of three levels of HCPCS, let’s delve a little deeper into this major code set. CPT has three categories of codes and this is still a pretty new concept for me because when I was learning, there were no categories, just CPT codes. 

Category I Codes
Category I codes are the original CPT codes they’re what I like to call “grown-up” CPT codes. In order to get a grown-up CPT code, a procedure has to meet some pretty stringent criteria: 

  • The procedure must have FDA approval
  • The procedure must be commonly performed by practitioners nationwide
  • The procedure must have proven efficacy
Once these criteria are met, a five-digit numeric code is assigned to the procedure and unlike ICD (different planet, remember?), these codes do not have decimal points. The codes are arranged in sections by type of procedure or service:

  • Evaluation and Management (E/M) (codes beginning with 9)
  • Anesthesia (codes beginning with 0)
  • Surgery (codes beginning with 1-6)
  • Radiology (codes beginning with 7)
  • Pathology and Laboratory
  • Medicine (the rest of the codes beginning with 9)
The Surgery codes are divided by specialty, for example, the cardiovascular codes begin with 3 and neuro codes begin with 6. After coding for a while, you should be able to look at a CPT code and have a general idea of what it is. A common newbie mistake is to look for the E/M codes in the back of the book. After all, they begin with 9!  But remember that CPT is a coding system that was developed by physicians for physicians and since physicians use E/M codes more than any others, they are in the front of the book for quick reference. 

Here are a few examples of Category I CPT codes:

  • 99283, Emergency department visit for the evaluation and management of a patient, which requires these 3 key components: An expanded problem focused history; An expanded problem focused examination; and Medical decision making of moderate complexity
  • 12002, Simple repair of superficial wounds of scalp, neck, axillae, external genitalia, trunk and/or extremities; 2.6cm to 7.5cm
  • 75625, Aortography, abdominal, by serialography, radiological supervision and interpretation 
Category II CPT Codes
Category II CPT codes are located behind the Category I CPT codes in the book. These are the only CPT codes that are optional. They are used by physicians for tracking performance measures. The purpose of these codes is to decrease administrative burden on providers while collecting information on the quality of patient care. Category II codes are five-digit alphanumeric codes that end in “F.”  Here are some examples:

  • 1040F, DSM-5 criteria for major depressive disorder documented at the initial evaluation (MDD, MDD ADOL)1
  • 3775F, Adenoma(s) or other neoplasm detected during screening colonoscopy (SCADR)12
Category II CPT codes are implemented throughout the year and may be implemented before they actually appear in the CPT book.  Code updates can be accessed on the AMA’s website

Category III CPT Codes
Category III CPT codes, or “baby codes,” as I like to call them, are for emerging technologies that do not meet the criteria of a grown-up Category I CPT code. The Category III codes are found behind the Category II codes in the CPT book. For procedures that are not commonly performed, lack FDA-approval, or don’t yet have proven efficacy, Category III codes are assigned. These are temporary codes for a period of 5 years. It has become common practice to see Category III codes reach Category I status with each annual update. For 2015, one of those procedures that was moved was transcatheter mitral valve repair with a prosthesis. The MitraClip uses this relatively new technology to treat mitral regurgitation and it received FDA approval in 2013. 

These are five-digit alphanumeric codes that end in “T.” The codes are added throughout the year and may be implemented before they are published in the CPT book. Here are some examples of some Category III codes:

  • 0387T, Transcatheter insertion or replacement of permanent lead less pacemaker, ventricular
  • 0274T, Percutaneous laminotomy/laminectomy (intralaminar approach) for decompression of neural elements, (with or without ligamentous resection, discectomy, facetectomy and/or foraminotomy) any method under indirect image guidance (eg, fluoroscopic, CT), with or without the use of an endoscope, single or multiple levels, unilateral or bilateral; cervical or thoracic
Updates to Category III codes can also be found on the AMA’s website throughout the year.  

Staying Updated
Back in the day, it was important just to make sure that you had the most recent year’s CPT book to ensure you were using valid codes. However, with the Internet, now it’s also important to monitor the CPT updates and errata on a regular basis since changes are made throughout the calendar year. I find it easiest to put a reminder on my calendar the first of each month to check the AMA’s website for updates to the errata, which is a list of corrected errors in the CPT code book, as well as changes in Category III codes. Since I don’t use Category II codes, I forego that update, but if you are coding them, be sure to look for those updates too. 

By the way, the errata is on the list of approved materials for the AAPC exams. The year I took the CIRCC exam (Certified Interventional Radiology and Cardiology Coder), there were a lot of errors in the electrophysiology code notes and the errata was something I really needed.  Be sure to check it out!

HCPCS codes have a concept specific to HCPCS codes only: modifiers. Think of modifiers like moons that are specific to a planet (and please forget for a moment that Venus doesn’t have any moons!). Modifiers apply to HCPCS codes only, not ICD-9-CM codes. They are added to HCPCS codes to provide additional information, such as a bilateral procedure or an unusual service or to indicate that a procedure was discontinued. CPT modifiers are two numeric digits that are appended to a HCPCS code with a dash (e.g., 75710-59). 

All CPT Coders are not Created Equal
The people who assign CPT codes are just as complex as the coding system. Since hospital coders code only a subset of CPT codes, they don’t have the same skill set that a pro-fee coder has. Remember that hospital inpatient coders use volume 3 of ICD-9-CM to code procedures. Hospital outpatient coders assign CPT codes for procedures that are found in the outpatient setting. So while the pro-fee coder coding for the cardiologist will code everything from a clinic visit in the physician’s office to an angioplasty in the hospital cardiac cath lab to a full blown coronary bypass in the hospital’s OR (all using CPT, of course), the outpatient hospital coder would only use CPT to code the angioplasty. Hospitals don’t follow conventional E/M rules and coronary bypass is an inpatient procedure that gets coded using ICD-9.   In addition, many of the modifiers used by hospitals are different than those used by physicians. 

These differences are one of the reasons it’s so difficult to make the crossover from hospital to pro-fee coding and vice versa. I personally hate E/M coding but I know people who love it. So if you find that one area of coding is not really your cup of tea, fear not!  You may find another area very rewarding. 

I also really can’t talk about CPT without bringing up a little tiny thing from the hospital side called a charge description master (CDM), or as it’s more commonly called, the charge master.  It’s as masterful as it sounds: a line-item listing of everything a hospital department charges for.  Each line item has a description of the charge, charge amount, and sometimes a CPT code.  One of the most difficult transitions I see in pro-fee coders crossing over to the hospital side is not understanding that the coder doesn’t code everything.  There are many codes that are assigned automatically by the charge master when a charge is applied to the bill.  This is the case when the CPT code doesn’t require a lot of subjective reasoning (e.g.,  lab test or x-ray).  For those procedures and services, such as operative procedures, that require subjective reasoning, a real-live coder will assign the code.  It may sound counter intuitive, but this actually increases the amount of coding-related jobs in a hospital.  The charge master analyst requires coding knowledge as he/she works with hospital departments to set up charges, research appropriate CPT codes for the procedure or service, and determine if it will be hard coded (by the charge master) or soft coded (by a person in coding).  

CPT Made (Too?) Simple
This posting really oversimplifies the CPT code set (that’s right, it gets more complex!), but it’s a start if you’re still finding your way in the coding field.  I have a love-hate relationship with CPT because I find it both challenging (love!) but also frustrating when I hear conflicting coding advice between CMS, the AMA, and medical/surgical societies (hate!).  If you find that you love all aspects of CPT, then you can have a very lucrative career in either the pro-fee or facility coding arenas.

Stay tuned to this series…  Next up is HCPCS Level II.

Coder Coach

Are Legislators Suffering from R41.9?

In terms of the blogosphere, I’ve been severely slacking for the last several months. In terms of ICD-10 preparation, I would argue I’ve done my fair share. As an AHIMA-Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS trainer for nearly 5 years, AHIMA ICD-10 Ambassador, and a senior consultant specializing in ICD-10 education, I’ve spent much of the three years with my current employer writing ICD-10 web-based and instructor-led training, coding cases using the ICD-10 code sets, and spending countless hours face-to-face with coders across the country conducting basic, intermediate, and advanced ICD-10-CM and ICD-10-PCS training. For three years I chaired Colorado’s ICD-10 Task Force, which has worked hard to raise awareness and push implementation efforts forward. 

I’ve been in the coding industry for 19 years and we’ve been talking about ICD-10 for my entire career. I remember where I was when the proposed rule for ICD-10 was released and who told me. It was that big of a deal. I remember reading the final rule with elation. I remember ICD-10 being held just after Obama took office because the final rule was released in the last month of the Bush’s administration. That delay was short-lived. And, of course, I can still feel the utter frustration I felt the day CMS announced that ICD-10 would be delayed until October 1, 2014. 
And now the fate of ICD-10 hangs in the balance. Again. For crying out loud, US Government, can’t we just move on?
If you haven’t heard, some language was slipped into House bill 4302 late Tuesday night that would delay ICD-10 for another year. And this morning, the bill passed. Now it’s on to the Senate. 
I can only believe that the reason this passed is because our legislators are suffering from R41.9, Unspecified symptoms and signs involving cognitive functions and awareness.  They just don’t know what they don’t know. 
I’m just not buying the excuse that we can’t be ready for ICD-10 in 6 months, even after we’ve been given a one-year delay already. I’ve been getting ready for several years, my company has been getting ready for several years, and providers and insurers have been padding their budgets for ICD-10 prep over the last 2 years. I’ve never seen hospitals buy into IT and training initiatives like they have for ICD-10. And I just don’t think postponing ICD-10 again because some providers aren’t ready because they didn’t think it would really be implemented is a viable reason for a delay. 
To be fair, this bill isn’t really about ICD-10. It’s about the sustainable growth rate for physicians that they are trying to address before a 24% pay cut for physicians goes into effect on April 1.  The last payment fix for them expires at the end of the month. However, I am bewildered as to how 7 lines of text calling for a one-year delay on ICD-10 managed to make its way into this bill. I am also bewildered as to how a bill that was released 24 hours before it was sent to vote actually passed. Did our congressmen and congresswomen really read the whole bill? And by “read,” I mean “read for comprehension.” I can only hope that the bill gets killed in the senate. Seriously, the government can’t keep leading us on like this!  And more importantly, how will we, as an industry, get enough credibility to ever implement ICD-10 if we have another delay?  If we delay now, we lose all momentum (and dollars) spent by the parties who actually thought the government was serious about ICD-10. 
Here’s what you can do: become informed and get your senators informed. The bill claims it will save more than $ 1 billion over the next 10 years. But what no one is telling them is that those 7 lines that address the ICD-10 delay are projected to cost between $ 1 billion and $ 6.6 billion by delaying ICD-10 by one year. And that is only 10-30% of the money that has already been spent by the healthcare industry so far. Are we really willing to throw all that money away when our healthcare industry is already under too much scrutiny for spending?
Go to and see how you can contact your senators by phone or email.  You don’t need to be an AHIMA member to do this and you can even read more information about why the language to delay ICD-10 implementation should be removed. Please act today and share this information with your fellow professionals so they can respond too. 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some emails to write and phone calls to make…

Coder Coach

From the Trainer: ICD-10 FAQ #1 – If the US is the last to implement, why are there so many unknowns?

For the last year, I’ve traveled across the country providing ICD-10-CM and ICD-10-PCS education to coders and clinical documentation specialists.  Our company’s model provides three separate training sessions for our clients: basic, intermediate, and advanced.  This means lots of repeat visits to each client, lots of really hard questions, and tons of professional growth for me.  I thought it was time to start a new series here on my Coder Coach blog: ICD-10 FAQs.  This is a question I’ve been asked a lot lately as we get into advanced trainings and more controversial topics:

If the United States is the last country to implement ICD-10, why are there so many unanswered coding questions and why do we have to wait for Coding Clinic advice?

While it seems logical that someone would have figured out all of this ICD-10 stuff within the last 20 years as we’ve been “messing around” here in the US (please note the sarcasm, because I don’t really think we’ve been messing around; we’ve actually been quite busy), the reality of the situation is that the US version of ICD-10 is different from everyone else’s.  The core ICD-10 code set was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and classifies causes of morbidity (i.e., diagnoses) and every country has the ability to adapt it further (e.g., ICD-10-CA in Canada, ICD-10-AM in Australia, ICD-10-CM in the US).  Two things should have jumped out at you based on this statement:

  1. ICD-10 diagnosis codes may be different in Canada, Australia, and the US
  2. The international code set does not  include procedures

Let’s tackle #1 first.  The US version of the ICD-10 diagnosis codes, ICD-10-CM, is a clinical modification (BTW – that’s what the “CM” stands for; it’s not “coding manual” like some people seem to think).  It is based on the WHO version, but has been adapted for use here in the good ole United States of America.  I haven’t had a ton of time to compare it to the original, but what I do know about the CM version is this:
  • The Excludes1/Excludes2 convention, which solves a lot of problems from ICD-9 (and creates a few new ones) is not part of the WHO version
  • The use of 7th character extensions for injuries and poisonings is not part of the WHO version
  • The expansion of the external cause codes, which are not required for reporting, are not nearly as extensive in the WHO version
  • While we have adapted diabetes terminology in the US to Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, the WHO version still uses the insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) and noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) terminology that we’ve worked so hard to banish from our medical record documentation here in the States
Most of the really hard diagnosis questions I get about coding ICD-10 diagnoses revolve around the changes that are unique to the CM version.
As for the procedural component, ICD-10-PCS (which stands for procedure coding system), that was developed in the US by CMS under contract with 3M.  Although I’ve heard that other countries have plans to adopt PCS, right now the US is the only country using it.  Although other countries have procedural coding systems, it’s important to remember that we are the only ones using coding for reimbursement.  For that reason, we will likely place more weight on those procedure codes than other countries and when it comes to PCS, it’s uncharted territory.
Hopefully that answers a couple of questions about the ambiguity of ICD-10.  And may I also just point out that this is nothing new.  Coding has always undergone an evolutionary process.  We have seen it with ICD-9-CM and CPT.  It’s the reason we have official publications like the Coding Clinic and CPT Assistant.  If you are not familiar with these publications, you need to be.  They are official resources that answer a lot of questions.  And as of second quarter of this year, the American Hospital Association has stopped publishing Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM and is only publishing Coding Clinic for ICD-10-CM/PCS.  My colleagues and I have been monitoring the publication very carefully each quarter because their advice does change some previous assumptions many have made based on what we know about these new coding systems.

Coder Coach