Should Doctors Bill For Phone Calls?

Beginning in January 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out G2012 – a new CPT code for “Brief communication technology-based service (virtual check-in)”. This code can be used for patient phone calls as well as electronic medical record patient portal contacts initiated by a patient. For the first time, doctors can charge for patient phone calls – but should they?

The details behind G2012 are that the physician cannot have seen the patient for a regular billable encounter for 7 days prior to the phone/portal encounter or for 24 hours after the phone/portal encounter. The medical discussion should be between 5 – 10 minutes and has to be between the patient and the doctor/NP/PA and not the office staff. The patient has to give verbal consent acknowledging that the telephone/portal visit will be billed. The patient must have been seen by the physician or a physician in the physician’s group within the past 3 years. This CPT code is compensated at 0.41 RVUs ($14.78 for Medicare).

When Medicare released its plans to roll out G2012 a year ago, physicians all over the country breathed a sigh of relief and said “…finally!”. Every physician who is responsible for direct patient care in the outpatient setting knows the burden of patient phone calls. On a typical Monday, I have 15-20 phone messages in my electronic medical record “in basket”. On a Monday after a holiday weekend, that number can increase to 25-30 and it is not uncommon for me to spend 1-2 hours on those Mondays just returning phone calls. It has been estimated that the average primary care practice gets 21 calls per day for every 1,000 patients in the practice.

There are additional CPT codes that are designated for phone calls of various lengths of time for physicians (99441, 99442, and 99443) as well as for advanced practice providers such as NPs or PAs (98966, 98967, and 98968). However, Medicare does not currently reimburse these codes so they are generally not used unless a commercial insurance company recognizes them. Similarly, there is a CPT code for email responses to patients for physicians (99444) and advanced practice providers (98969) but these are also not currently reimbursed by Medicare.

Some phone calls are entirely legitimate, for example, a person who gets an asthma flare when traveling out of town and needs advice and a new inhaler. But some phone calls are simply because a patient does not want to come into the office or a patient wants to avoid an office visit co-pay. In these situations, the physician is providing free healthcare to the patient. And that equates to uncompensated physician time as well as malpractice vulnerability. There are pros and cons to billing for phone calls.

Pros

  1. It can reduce overall healthcare costs. The office overhead expense associated with a face-to-face office visit can be considerable. As opposed to a regular office visit, there is no need for registration staff, nursing staff, office space use, and checkout staff with a phone call.
  2. It allows more flexible use of the physician’s time. The doctor can return that call at a time when he/she has a few free minutes rather than committing the doctor to a fixed appointment time for an office visit.
  3. It is more convenient for the patient. Having a medical problem managed by a phone call can obviate the cost of travel to the doctor’s office and the time involved in getting to and from the doctor’s office. For the patient who is a student or who is working, it also obviates the need to take time away from classes or time off work to go to the doctor’s office.
  4. It improves doctor satisfaction. Physicians have provided free medical care over the phone ever since phones came into existence. Knowing that you are getting paid something (even if not very much) can eliminate that sense of being taken advantage of that you otherwise would have. From my perspective, this is one of the most important reasons to bill for patient phone calls.
  5. It can create a barrier for patients who abuse the system. Every physician who practices outpatient medicine has had the last minute cancelation by a patient who then calls the office an hour later asking if the doctor can call them back and manage by phone the medical problem that they were supposed to come in for. The physician still has to pay the overhead cost of that no-show on the schedule in terms of the nurse’s salary, office rent, the receptionist’s salary, and the the utility bills not to mention the physician’s own salary. Every physician also has the patient who sends lengthy messages via the EMR patient portal on a daily basis or calls multiple times a week. The awareness that the patient (or at least their insurance) will be billed for those calls can reduce abuse.
  6. It encourages use of email communications through patient portals. Phone calls create more overhead expense than emails. There is the time the office staff takes to answer and transcribe patient messages, the time it takes someone to answer the phone when the physician calls back, the time it takes for the patient to actually get on the phone, the time it takes the physician to document the call in the medical record, etc. An email communication eliminates much of that overhead cost of office staff and physician time. Furthermore, when the patient has the doctor on the phone (as opposed to an email message), it often results in additional medical questions that follow the comment: “Oh, and while I have you on the phone…” and this adds additional time as well as complexity of medical decision making. I can answer 3 patient emails in the time it takes me to return 1 patient phone call.

Cons

  1. The patient has a co-pay. Although the reality is that at $2.50, it is a bargain. Nevertheless, for patients used to getting free medical advice over the phone, the co-pay can be surprising.
  2. The patient has to give verbal permission/acknowledgement that the phone call will be billed. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate scripting into the nurse or office staff who initially answers the phone and starts the phone message.
  3. Phone calls do not pay much. The cost of your revenue cycle department to submit and collect the phone call bill may be nearly the $14.78 you will be paid by Medicare for the phone call.
  4. It is not usually covered by commercial insurance. Usually, it takes commercial insurance companies a year or two to catch up to new CPT codes introduced by Medicare. Currently, few insurance companies cover phone calls so the patient may be charged the full amount. This can result in patient dissatisfaction (although it can be a deterrent to patients who abuse phone availability).
  5. The phone call must be for analysis or decision making that requires the physician. In other words, you should not be billing for a patient phone call that is simply to request to reschedule an upcoming office visit. It is the physician’s time that must be > 5 minutes and not the nurse’s time or the office staff’s time.
  6. The phone call must be at least 5 minutes. It only takes 1-2 minutes to send in a prescription refill and so it would be difficult to justify billing for a phone call simply to request a refill. However, for a patient with a COPD exacerbation, by the time the doctor reviews the patient’s past history in the chart, takes an interval history over the phone, checks for allergies, reviews the current medication list for potential drug interactions, sends a prescription for an antibiotic and prednisone to the pharmacy, and then documents the telephone encounter, it almost always takes at least 5 minutes. Be sure that the time spent on the encounter is documented in the medical record. Because Medicare auditors can audit time stamps in the electronic medical record, the amount of time between the physician initially opening the telephone encounter in the EMR until the time the physician closes that encounter must be > 5 minutes.
  7. It creates a disincentive for the patient to come into the office. Although it is true that you can practice a lot of medicine over the phone or over the internet, sometimes a physical examination is essential, even if just to get an accurate set of vital signs. Moreover, it becomes more difficult to arrange a needed EKG, a pulmonary function test, a chest x=ray, or blood tests when you are managing a patient over the phone as opposed to the patient being in the office where those tests are readily available in the office. If patients believes that they can get just as good of medical care with a phone call as they can by a face-to-face office visit, then they may stop coming into the office. Not only can this have the potential to jeopardize high quality care, but since the reimbursement for telephone calls is so low compared to an office visit, physicians who do nothing but phone calls all day long will soon go out of business.

When used appropriately, billing for phone calls is a win-win-win. The patient wins by getting their medical problem addressed without having to take the time involved in going to the doctor’s office or the emergency room. The insurance company wins because that $14.78 phone call can often avoid a much more expensive trip to the ER or an urgent care facility. The doctor wins because she/he now gets paid at least something with the psychological benefit to the doctor being worth considerably more than the financial benefit.

December 1, 2019