Two CPT codes you have to know

During a typical office visit, physicians may provide evaluation and management (E/M) services, minor procedures and more. The question is: Can they bill for each one separately?

During a typical office visit, physicians may provide evaluation and management (E/M) services, minor procedures and more. The question is: Can they bill for each one separately? In some cases, the answer is no. In others, though, the answer is yes — but they must know what current procedural terminology (CPT) modifier to append. Modifiers communicate this important message to payers: Pay me for services that wouldn’t normally warrant separate reimbursement.

However, incorrectly appending these modifiers can lead to payment denials and open practices up for greater payer scrutiny. Consider these two important modifiers and the advice below on how you can use them to get paid correctly.

Modifier -25

What it means:

A physician performed a significant, separately identifiable E/M service on the same day of a procedure or other service.

How to use it correctly:

“This is how I always explain it: If the presenting problem is entirely resolved by the procedure, you just bill the procedure,” says Victoria Moll, CPC, owner and founder of Contempo Coding, LLC, in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania.

For example, a patient presents with hearing loss, so a physician examines their ears, sees impacted cerumen and decides to remove it. After the removal, the patient can hear again. In this case, only the cerumen removal is billable, Moll says. However, if the patient also had a sore throat that required treatment, a separate E/M with modifier -25 may be warranted. The same is true if the patient still couldn’t hear after the cerumen removal, and the physician ordered a hearing test.

Here’s another common scenario: A patient presents for a flu shot. If the physician only administers the vaccine, only the vaccine is billable, Moll explains. However, if the patient also mentions they’ve had a rash on their abdomen during the encounter, the physician may be able to bill a separate E/M service with modifier -25 for addressing the rash, she adds.

Similarly, when a physician performs a steroid injection for knee pain, they shouldn’t bill a separate E/M code, explains Toni Elhoms, CCS, CPC, CPMA, CRC, chief executive officer of Alpha Coding Experts, LLC, in Orlando, Florida. “This is a big issue in primary care,” she says. “The decision to perform a minor procedure is included in the procedure. You can’t just automatically tack on an E/M code and bill it with a modifier -25.”

However, there are always exceptions. Elhoms provides this example: A patient presents with knee pain, and a physician gives them a steroid injection. However, during the encounter, the physician also decides to prescribe medication and considers ordering an MRI because they suspect there could be a larger injury. In this case, there may be a separately identifiable E/M service.

Weight management or obesity screening and counseling (i.e., CPT codes 99401-99404) with an E/M office visit is another area of confusion, says Rozmin Bapat, CCS-P, CPB, CPC, CPCO, CPMA, founder and CEO of CodeRite Healthcare Consulting in Dallas. “If the patient is coming in for weight management and that’s all you’re doing, that doesn’t justify billing an office visit code,” she says. An exception would be if the patient presents for weight management and complains of leg pain. In this case, a separate E/M visit code may be warranted, she explains.

When using modifier -25, the best practice is to separate documentation for the E/M service from documentation for the separate procedure, according to Deborah Grider, CDIP, CPC, senior healthcare consultant at KarenZupko & Associates, Inc., in Chicago. “There should be two separate procedure notes. It shouldn’t all be rolled into the E/M service,” she says.

However, knowing your payer policies is also critical. For example, some commercial payers have policies stating you can’t ever bill a level two E/M service on the same day as a minor procedure, Moll explains. “A minor procedure includes some component of E/M,” she says. “Often, a level two E/M service is not significant and separately identifiable.”

Other times, payers deny claims with modifier -25 as a matter of policy, or they automatically require additional documentation before paying the claim, Grider explains. Similarly, payers may never cover weight management counseling separately, or they may require a specific body mass index, Bapat says.

There’s also the issue of diagnosis codes. Although two different diagnosis codes aren’t required to report modifier -25, some payers might automatically deny claims when physicians only report one diagnosis code, Grider explains. “Providers may need to appeal these cases and submit documentation to prove they did the separate evaluation,” she says.

In many cases — but not all —two different diagnoses may be warranted, Bapat says. She provides the example of an E/M service with an annual wellness visit (AWV). When a physician performs a separate E/M service, they should report one or more diagnosis codes for the separate problem, along with a Z00.01 for the AWV with abnormal findings. For example, if the physician discovers the patient has hypertension and decides to prescribe a medication, they should report the E/M service with I10.

Modifier -24

What it means:

A physician performed an unrelated E/M service during a postoperative period.

How to use it correctly:

It is important to understand global periods for minor procedures, Elhoms says. Each code in the surgery section of CPT has a global period indicator. This means all services related to the procedure are included in those days and cannot be billed separately. More specifically, some procedures have a 90-day global period, whereas others have a 10-day or zero-day period, meaning nothing related to the procedure is separately billable on the day of the procedure.

Consider the following global day designations for common minor procedures:

Minor procedure/CPT code/Global day designation

Cerumen removal/69209-69210/0

Joint aspiration and/or injection/20610/0

Foreign body removal/10120-10121/10

Laceration repair/12031-12057/10

Incision and drainage/10140/10

Here’s where modifier -24 comes in. If the service is within the global period but unrelated to the procedure, physicians may be able to append modifier -24 to the E/M code so they can get paid separately. Elhoms advises to ask this question before separately reporting an E/M code with modifier -24: Is the service standard pre- and postoperative care for the procedure? “If the answer is yes, that’s not enough for a separate E/M service,” she says.

Another question to ask is: Am I reporting two different diagnosis codes? If so, modifier -24 may be warranted, Grider explains. She provides this example: A patient has a laceration repair, then presents with a sinus infection three days later. “Even though you’re within the global period, it’s clear why a separate E/M service was warranted,” she says.