The Magazine

Code Chaos

Another nightmare for doctors, courtesy of the federal government

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Jacksonville, Fla.
Ever considered suicide by jellyfish? Have you ended up in the hospital after being injured during the forced landing of your spacecraft? Or been hurt when you were sucked into the engine of an airplane or when your horse-drawn carriage collided with a trolley?

Dave Malan

Dave Malan

Chances are slim.

But should any of these unfortunate injuries befall you after October 1, 2014, your doctor, courtesy of the federal government, will have a code to record it. On that date, the United States is scheduled to implement a new system for recording injuries, medical diagnoses, and inpatient procedures called ICD-10​—​the 10th version of the International Classification of Diseases propagated by the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. So these exotic injuries, codeless for so many years, will henceforth be known, respectively, as T63622A (Toxic effect of contact with other jellyfish, intentional self-harm, initial encounter), V9542XA (Forced landing of spacecraft injuring occupant, initial encounter), V9733XA (Sucked into jet engine, initial encounter), and V80731A (Occupant of animal-drawn vehicle injured in collision with streetcar, initial encounter).

The coming changes are vast. The number of codes will explode​—​from 17,000 under the current system to 155,000 under the new one, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

The transition to ICD-10 was planned long before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But Obama administration officials say it is a critical part of the coming reforms. “ICD-10 is the foundation for health care reform,” said Jeff Hinson, a CMS regional administrator, in a conference call about ICD-10 for providers in Colorado.

It will affect almost every part of the U.S. health care system​—​providers and payers, physicians and researchers, hospitals and clinics, the government and the private sector. That system​—​already stressed with doctor shortages, electronic medical records mandates, and the broader chaos of Obamacare​—​is nowhere near ready. And that has lots of people worried.

Health care professionals use ICD codes to talk to one another. The codes record diagnoses and services provided, and third-party payers​—​government, insurance companies​—​use the codes to determine reimbursements and to deter fraud. Coding errors can mean unpaid claims or costly audits​—​or both.

Virtually everyone agrees that the transition will mean decreased productivity and lost revenue, at least for a time. Some experts, dismissed as alarmists by ICD-10 enthusiasts, are predicting widespread chaos in a sector of the economy that can little afford it.

“I’m very nervous about whether once we flip that switch on October 1 this is all going to work,” says William Harvey, an assistant professor of medicine and the clinical director of the Division of Rheumatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

But nobody really knows just what to expect. And remarkably, despite the embarrassing failures of HealthCare.gov, until recently the federal government had no plans to conduct end-to-end testing of the system before the launch this fall.

In a letter to CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner on February 18, 2014, four Republican senators pressed for comprehensive testing. The senators​—​Tom Coburn, Rand Paul, John Barrasso, and John Boozman​—​are all physicians and expressed deep concern that CMS is planning only one week of “front-end” testing. After receiving the letter, CMS hastily announced that it will offer limited end-to-end testing to “a small group of providers” at some point in “summer 2014” and promised that “details about the end-to-end testing process will be disseminated at a later date.”

That’s hardly reassuring. One health care consultant, a longtime ICD-10 proponent, put it this way: “This is probably going to be the most painful year we’ve seen in the history of U.S. health care.”

On a foggy Thursday morning in early January, 30 medical coders gathered in a nondescript meeting room on the third floor of the downtown Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville. They paid between $585 and $985 each to attend a two-day “boot camp” on the new codes taught by Annie Boynton, from the American Academy of Professional Coders. On the black cloth covering each table were the day’s necessities: a Hyatt Regency pad of paper and pen, a coffee cup and saucer, a jar full of hard candy, a glass and a sweating metal pitcher filled with ice water. At each place, students found a thin spiral book​—​the “ICD-10-CD General Code Set Manual” for 2014​—​and a six-pound, phone-book-thick “ICD-10 Complete Draft Code Set.” 

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