From a recent study:
We analyzed advance care planning (ACP) billing for adults aged 65 years or above and who were managed by a large national physician practice that employs acute care providers in hospital medicine, emergency medicine and critical care between January 1, 2017 and March 31, 2017. Prompting hospitalists to answer the validated “surprise question” (SQ; “Would you be surprised if the patient died in the next year?”) for inpatient admissions served to prime hospitalists and triggered an icon next to the patient’s name. Among 113,621 hospital-based encounters, only 6,146 (5.4%) involved a billed ACP conversation: 8.3% among SQ-prompted who answered “no” and 4.1% SQ-prompted who answered “yes” (for non-SQ prompted cases, the fraction was 3.5%; P less than .0001). ACP conversations were associated with a comfort-focused care trajectory. Low ACP rates among even those with high hospitalist-predicted mortality risk underscore the need for quality improvement interventions to increase hospital-based ACP.
The last sentence is a non sequitur. The codes are an unreliable measure because many, I would wager most, ACP discussions are not billed with these particular codes. Many hospitalists don’t even know they exist. The codes, 99497 and 99498, were not even included in the fee schedule until 2016 so they were brand new at the time of the study.
Ten years ago similar codes were proposed under the Affordable Care Act but spurred fierce debate around “death panel” fears. Those provisions were dropped before final passage of the law. What’s interesting is how these provisions were slipped in out of most people’s awareness, with no public debate to speak of, seven years later. Political winds change and people are easily distracted.
Only the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, (AAPS), a relatively minor player in the larger physician community, seemed to mind. They argued that the codes, which pay more than ordinary CPT codes, would incentivize doctors to talk patients out of life prolonging treatments. That’s an oversimplification, of course, because some ACP conversations produce decisions for more care, not less. That said, the intent of the measure is to reward doctors for giving less care toward the end of life. It creates the perception of a conflict of interest though based on the data above the measure has had minimal impact.
The public debate about the proposal in 2009 was confused. The idea of the “death panel” (merely an inflammatory term for an advance care discussion) was nothing new. We had been having those discussions for decades. Moreover, the pre-existing ordinary CPT codes already rewarded doctors for long discussions through the provision that a higher level of service could be coded if greater than half the encounter time was spent in counseling or care coordination. Nobody on either side of the debate seemed aware of those facts.