Thousands of doctors across the country are billing Medicare for routine medical care at rates far above their peers, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in overcharges, according to a new government report.
The audit released today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General stopped short of accusing the high-billing doctors of ripping off the government health plan for the elderly. But it stated that Medicare’s payment scales for doctors have been “vulnerable to fraud and abuse” in recent years.
The doctor payment scales are known as “Evaluation and Management” or E/M codes. Doctors choose from five escalating payment levels for treating patients based on the “amount of skill, effort, time responsibility and medical knowledge required for the service.” In 2010, almost 370 million E/M services were provided by about 442,000 doctors nationwide.
The code the doctor chooses can make a big difference to the bottom line. For instance, the Medicare fee for treating a new patient in 2010 ranged from $36.62 to $190.56, depending on the level of service provided by the doctor, and the code chosen for billing.
Using these codes, Medicare paid doctors and other health professionals $33.5 billion in 2010 for services ranging from routine office care to hospital or nursing homes visits.
That billing total represented a 48 percent jump since 2001, though the number of services delivered over the same time period grew only 13 percent. What the data reveal is that many doctors have been gravitating toward the codes that pay them higher fees for these routine services, a practice officials have struggled to understand and curb.