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  • Final 2020 Fee Schedule: CMS Relents on PTA Differential System for 2020; Presses on With Planned 8% Cut to Physical Therapy in 2021

    A major win, and a major challenge: that's what APTA and the physical therapy profession are facing now that the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has released the final 2020 Medicare physician fee schedule. While the agency seems to have listened to critics and made significant positive changes to the way it will calculate payment when therapy services are delivered "in part" by a physical therapist assistant (PTA), it inexplicably ignored thousands of comments, including a letter from members of Congress, calling for reconsideration of a proposed 8% cut for physical therapy payment and host of other disciplines in 2021. The planned cuts set the stage for intense advocacy efforts by APTA and other professional organizations representing a wide range of health professions including psychologists, occupational therapists, ophthalmologists, chiropractors, and clinical social workers. [CMS has also issued a fact sheet and press release on the final rule.]


    The win: CMS backed off from an ill-advised system to calculate when therapy services delivered "in part" by a PTA would trigger 15% lower Medicare Part B payments beginning in 2022.

    Background: It wasn't CMS' idea to create a code modifier (CQ or CO) to denote services delivered "in part" by a PTA or occupational therapy assistant (OTA)—that was something introduced by federal law—but the way CMS proposed to roll out the system lacked understanding for the real world of physical therapy care delivery. In addition to the proposal being misinformed, it was overly burdensome, and would've likely reduced patient access to needed care.

    What was proposed: CMS forwarded the idea of a "de minimis" 10% standard that would trigger use of the modifier whenever a PTA or OTA provided outpatient therapy services for 10% or more of the total time spent furnishing the service. The proposal stipulated, among other things, that the modifiers be applied to the claim when services were delivered concurrently with a physical therapist (PT), and required all codes to be accompanied by a written explanation of why the modifier was or wasn't used.

    What's in the final rule: APTA and its members engaged in an intensive advocacy effort around these provisions, and CMS reconsidered its approach, adopting a system that's consistent with many of the association's recommendations. Among the wins in the new rule:

    • When the PT is involved for the entire duration of the service and the PTA provides skilled therapy alongside the PT, the CQ modifier isn't required.
    • When the same service (code) is furnished separately by the PT and PTA, CMS will apply the de minimis standard to each 15-minute unit of codes—not on the total PT and PTA time of the service, allowing the separate reporting, on 2 different claim lines, of the number of units to which the new modifiers apply and the number of units to which the modifiers do not apply.
    • The proposed documentation requirements are scrapped.

    "This is a huge win for physical therapy under Medicare," said Kara Gainer, APTA director of regulatory affairs. "When we speak with a unified voice, make a clear case for our position, and offer viable options, we can make a difference with CMS. In this case, the difference our members made was huge."


    The challenge: For now, CMS is sticking to its proposal to cut payment for physical therapy providers by an estimated 8% beginning in 2021.

    Background: CMS thinks that values for office/outpatient evaluation and management (E/M) codes are too low—an opinion that APTA doesn't necessarily oppose.

    What was proposed: The Medicare physician fee schedule is budget-neutral. To increase values for the E/M codes while maintaining budget neutrality under the fee schedule, CMS proposed cuts to other codes to make up the difference beginning in 2021. Under the plan, physical therapy could see code reductions that may result in an estimated 8% decrease in payment. Other professions stand to lose as well: for example, ophthalmology would see a 10% cut, audiology would face a 6% reduction, chiropractic care would drop by 9%, and clinical social workers would see payment decline by 6%. In total, 36 specialties are facing reimbursement reductions in 2021. However, CMS has not yet determined the actual cuts to each code.

    What's in the final rule: Despite a flood of comments into CMS—more than 10,000 from APTA members alone—and a collaborative advocacy effort among professional organizations that included a letter signed by 55 members of Congress opposing the cuts and a provider sign-on letter signed by 10 associations, CMS left the proposal untouched in the final rule.

    CMS briefly acknowledges the reaction it received, writing that "we understand commenters' concerns with the magnitude of the redistributive adjustment necessary." The agency explains that it was reluctant to make any changes to the plan given that "we do not know the magnitude of redistribution resulting from other policies we may adopt through rulemaking before then," and characterizes a table of proposed 2021 code valuation adjustments included in the final fee schedule as being "for illustrative purposes only."

    "APTA made it very clear to CMS that the association and its members oppose the cuts proposal for 2021, and Congress reinforced APTA’s message," said Katy Neas, APTA executive vice president of public affairs. "APTA and its members, along with literally thousands of other health care providers, made compelling arguments and offered thoughtful alternatives that were seemingly completely ignored as the final rule was drafted. We are taking CMS very seriously when it says that this plan is subject to change. We've brought the association's voice to bear on the PTA modifier issue, and CMS listened. Over the next 12 months, we will leverage every possible opportunity – working with Congress and CMS --to change this flawed policy."


    More from the fee schedule: MIPS continues to expand, and CMS continues to move toward a more streamlined system.

    The final rule also makes changes to the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS). Starting in 2020, CMS will add measures for diabetic foot and ankle care; peripheral neuropathy: neurological evaluation and prevention evaluation of footwear; screening for clinical depression and follow-up plan; falls screening and plan of care, elder maltreatment screen and follow-up plan; preventive care and screening: tobacco use: screening and cessation intervention; dementia: cognitive assessment, functional status assessment, and education and support of caregivers for patients with dementia; falls: screening for future fall risk; and functional status change for patients with neck impairment. The rule also removes 2 measures: pain assessment and follow-up, and functional status change for patients with general orthopedic impairments.

    Other changes to MIPS include the following:

    • Data completeness for the 2020 performance year will be set at a 70% sample for both Medicare Part B claims-based reporting and clinician or group reporting via a registry.
    • Groups will be able to attest to an improvement activity when at least 50% of the MIPS-eligible clinicians perform the activity, at a rate of at least 50% of the group's providers with a National Provider Identifier (NPI) performing the same activity for the same 90 continuous days in the performance period.
    • The Promoting Interoperability category will continue to be reweighted for PTs by CMS in 2020, meaning that PTs won't be scored in this category.
    • MIPS-eligible clinicians with a final score of 45 will receive a neutral payment adjustment in 2020, with the score rising to 60 points for the 2021 payment year. The exceptional performance bonus will be triggered with a score of 85 points in both 2020 and 2021.
    • CMS will also continue its shift to a streamlined version of MIPS, which it has dubbed "MIPS Value Pathways," (MVPs) for 2021 and beyond.

    Also notable in the 2020 PFS: KX modifier thresholds, dry needling, biofeedback codes, negative pressure wound therapy, and more.

    As always, the fee schedule rule is expansive. Here are some quick takes on other 2020 PFS provisions of interest to the physical therapy community.

    The KX modifier gets a slight bump. The threshold amount for use of the KX modifier will rise from $2,040 to $2,080 for physical therapy and speech-language pathology services combined, and by the same amount for occupational therapy services. The targeted medical review threshold remains at $3,000. These changes will be incorporated into APTA's multiple procedure payment reduction (MPPR) calculator, which will be live before January 1, 2020.

    Dry needling codes have been added—but CMS won't be covering them. The final rule adds 2 dry needling codes (1 for insertions in 1-2 muscles, and another for insertions in 3 or more), but the codes will remain unpaid unless a national coverage determination says otherwise. If the codes were covered, CMS believes they should be considered as "sometimes therapy" procedures rather than "always therapy."

    Biofeedback codes are now available as "sometimes therapy." Codes related to biofeedback training of perineal muscles or anorectal or urethral sphincters have been added to the biofeedback family, and valued at .90 work RVU for the initial 15 minutes of treatment and .50 work RVU for each additional 15 minutes of one-on-one contact.

    Negative wound pressure gets coding values. After some 3 years of work, CMS has established relative value units (RVU) and direct practice expense inputs for codes associated with negative wound pressure therapy, with a .41 work RVU for code 97607 (vacuum-assisted drainage collection for total wound surface area of 50 square centimeters or fewer) and .46 work RVU for 97608 (vacuum-assisted drainage collection for total wound surface area of 51 square centimeters or more).

    CMS remains unclear when it comes to PTs' use of remote physiologic monitoring codes. Last year, CMS said qualified health care professionals can furnish and bill for these services, as long as it’s within their scope of practice. APTA interprets this to include PTs, who are included in the American Medical Association’s definition of "qualified health professionals." In response to APTA’s continued request for clarity from the agency, CMS advised that PTs with billing questions related to these codes contact their Medicare administrative contractor(s). In the final rule, CMS says it will "consider these and other questions." Once again, the issue seems to be up in the air.


    • So I know all these PTs that have been billing dry needling as manual. We don't allow that at our company but it seems to be common practice out there. 1) what should those clinics do? 2) What should I do as someone who is following the rules surrounded by people that don't?

      Posted by Simon Hargus on 11/5/2019 10:49 AM

    • Does the 15% Part B payment differential effect ALL Med B patients (including Part B in a SNF) or just stand alone outpatient clinics? Same question for the 8% cut effective 2022.

      Posted by Edward Lee -> BJY\<J on 11/6/2019 2:14 PM

    • The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting a different result. The American physical therapy Association has been insane for the past 20 years. Repeatedly I have suggested going to the public rather than Congress and CMS. All of my patients are wondering why visit numbers have been cut and feel that Medicare has been turned into an HMO. Frequent reimbursement cuts Seem to be acceptable to this association. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they do something different? As I have suggested many times before, if all of the staff and leaders at the American physical therapy Association would have their pay cut by the same amount as our reimbursement every year I think there would be some changes. This may not matter in the future however as more and more physical therapists see the association is nothing more than a paper tiger who report the changes to our profession as just another headline. For the first time in 39 years I’m considering not renewing my membership and giving my money to the NFIB who looks after small businesses including Physical Therapists and seem to do a much better job.Maybe all of the money you guys spend on diversity programs, elegant galas, and meetings could be directed to saving our profession. What really saddens me is all of these Physical Therapist graduates coming out with over $100,000 in student loans only to discover that there may not be the jobs there used to be. By the way, it was an incredibly stupid decision to move the physical therapy education to a doctoral level. It was just another money grab by the Universities and all of the elitist educators who make most of the decisions at the association.

      Posted by Brian on 11/6/2019 4:08 PM

    • I don't really see how this is a win. The 15% pay difference is still there. On top of the 8% cut that may go through. A possible 23% cut in reimbursement for any outpatient services provided by a PTA. A lot of clinics with mostly Medicare clients are going to shut down. The clinic I'm at is almost 75% medicare just due to the demographics of the area. That is a sizable chunk of an already low profit margin that likely won't be sustainable. Expect lowered quality of care, probably increased fraudulent billing etc etc...

      Posted by J on 11/6/2019 5:40 PM

    • I’d like just a little more clarification. What happens to reimbursement for the following two scenarios going forward? 1.) PT and PTA co-treat a patient with the patient being on the PT’s schedule. 2.) PTA provides a full treatment to a patient on their schedule under direct PT supervision.

      Posted by Ryan on 11/7/2019 7:45 AM

    • Ok, if what J is stating is accurate, this most definitely is not a “win”. There are only 15 PTs in my county. The county population is nearly 50 thousand. It is mathematically impossible to not utilize a PTA for treatment. My clinic is 50 % Medicare. What a hit I am going to take. It’s going to be interesting going forward... How did this even happen?? APTA please quit calling this a “win”.

      Posted by Ryan on 11/7/2019 10:09 AM

    • @Ryan: Scenario 1: Reimbursed at 100% of PFS (don’t apply CQ modifier) Scenario 2: Reimbursed at 85% of PFS (apply CQ modifier)

      Posted by APTA Staff on 11/7/2019 12:43 PM

    • @Edward: The PTA payment differential that goes into effect in 2022 impacts all Part B settings that bill under PFS. However, critical access hospitals are not impacted. The estimated 8% cut in 2021 would be implemented by applying reductions to the valuations to the physical therapy and occupational therapy codes. As such, any provider billing these CPT codes is impacted.

      Posted by APTA Staff on 11/7/2019 12:44 PM

    • Our PTA's have their own schedule of clients. The PT is in the facility with line of sight observation at all times, however consults only on the treatment for that day. The PTA does the entire treatment, signs as secondary and the p.t. as primary. What modifier will we use and is the discounted payment 10%...or what?

      Posted by Michael Dee -> DHU\ on 11/9/2019 7:40 AM

    • Most clinics in areas with a heavy federally funded payor populations have to employ PTAs because margins are already too thin to be able to offer a wage that can attract a PT, yet the demand for services is there. In areas where the ratio of fed payors is greater than commercial, PTAs are essential to be able to meet the demands of those seeking therapy and still keep a clinic operating in the black. Cutting services performed by a PTA by 23% would leave these clinics little choice but to consider a different model accepting only commercial insurance and work comp while cutting staff. This will effectively limit access to therapy in rural and low income communities and begin making PTAs obsolete. Where is the "win"? We are letting CMS erode the value of what we do. Maybe time to shift lobbying efforts to allow us to treat and bill 2 Medicare beneficiaries at 1 time since that is what we are being reimbursed for? That beats the financial necessity of no longer accepting them as patients which is our current path.

      Posted by T on 11/9/2019 7:27 PM

    • Unlike most of the other professions listed, our reimbursement has already been cut well over 50% during the past decade. Additionally, we aren't making much money. Our salaries generally are less than Dental Hygienists....or at least no more. So, why are we seeing so many CMS patient's again? Let me see....big hassle factor with regs, notes and the ever present threat of an OIG investigation if we are actually spending too much time treating the patients. We need to add staff to process all of the codes, modifiers, requests for clarification..... The APTA has very limited power to impact the politics of the situation....again, we don't make enough money to fund a substantial PAC, and today that is mostly what impacts Congress. So, again, why am I seeing a case load of 50% CMS patients? Maybe the change that needs to be made is with every PT in practice, because until the patients complain in mass, CMS isn't going to provide any relief. Brian

      Posted by Brian P. D'Orazio on 11/10/2019 12:16 AM

    • This profession is starting to feel like a joke—and don’t even get me started on this association. First, the PDGM passes, and now all these additional cuts...and the APTA has the NERVE to even mention the word “win”. Seriously? Who is winning here? I’m a new grad PT with nearly $200k in debt and what do I have to look forward to? This is why you people are having a hard time getting and retaining members.. because you are proving time and time again to be utterly useless. I will not be renewing my membership. You can get my money when you start earning it.

      Posted by Jessica on 11/13/2019 2:50 PM

    • I think some of the comments regarding APTA to be harsh, but I do see the frustration with the use of the word, "win." I am especially frustrated by the APTA calling the reduction in supervision requirements for hospitals a "win." I would call it a SLAP IN THE FACE!!! At a time when we are being told that reimbursement for PTA services will be cut 15%, we are also being told that we must provide direct supervision? Is this a joke? Where else in the world do you see this? Ok, do more work, and in return, we will pay you less. I won't accept this. I will quit treating Medicare clients. Medicare clients will have to go to hospital if they want PT, and somehow this is a win? As an association, we must do better. We must

      Posted by Bill on 11/16/2019 7:35 AM

    • I guess my question is why do we let this happen as a profession? Why are we allowing the government to set these rules? How do we fight back and just say, No! Stop!

      Posted by Brian W on 11/22/2019 1:11 PM

    • The APTA is now a bad union organization not able to fight effectively for your salary like other unions. So like democratic citizens, if you are a member be sure to vote for those who have the business skill set and marketing skill set and vision to fight collectively for its members.

      Posted by Grady on 11/26/2019 3:14 PM

    • My son just graduated from PTA school. Now is faced with over $50000 in debt and can not find anyone hiring. Medicare has changed the guidelines in regards to therapy services as of October 1, 2019 in skilled nursing facilities, and outpatient services cuts are coming. What are these PT, PTA professions going to do? They all have bills and families. CMS please hear our voices. So many will be out of work. Not only will they suffer but those In need of therapy services will suffer. I can see many outpatient clinics / nursing facilities begin not to accept Medicare patients.

      Posted by Connie Knight on 12/10/2019 11:05 AM

    • APTA needs to develop an effective method to prevent these patient-detrimental cost saving strategies from CMS. Unfortunately we all know that the overall cost of health care will not go down, rather they will be redistributed towards paying for increased administrative costs.

      Posted by Kathleen Novicki, DPT, PRPC on 12/13/2019 2:42 PM

    • I completely agree with what was "posted by Brian on 11/6/2019 4:08 PM". I stopped giving to the APTA many years ago when, after putting forth large amounts for national, state, plus section memberships, reimbursement for PT's have hardly kept up with the demand. Patients have been putting TON of their taxes over the years into the MC system; they have been getting less and less in the 31+ years I've been practicing because of the shrinking reimbursement to providers. This has not translated into improved quality care in the outpatient practice setting, but more "short cuts" (some which are needed due to the fraud, waste and abuse in what was otherwise an "okay" system). I've always advocated for the patient (and family) to take a 100% active participation in their care, but they are getting less and less for their ever increasing premiums. Unfortunately, as an independent contractor for the last 21 years and working in multiple private practices within the typical year, I've seen the fraud, waste and abuse on all sides (it's what motivate me to obtain my certification as a fraud examiner in 2016). We dot our 'I's" and cross our "T's" to get paid our pennies from MC, and are happy to do whatever it takes for our patients; in the meantime, I see a lot of lobbying, "talk" and other garbage that not only gets zero done, the patient's in the long run end up getting the short end of the stick, as do the providers. For every $1 put forth for investigating where health care dollars are going, we are getting a $12 dollar return...and that was 2013 figures. I hear the same APTA "reimbursement issues" rehashing today as I heard when I was in PT school in the 80's. Need to come up with a better plan APTA to promote the WORTH of physical rehabilitation (and it's medical necessity for function and quality of life) to CMS, or else there will be nothing left to reimburse with. Our profession will be another "ancillary care" shoved off in the optional dustbin. Glad I'm finishing this wave ride instead of just dropping in.

      Posted by Karen Stewart PT CFE on 12/23/2019 5:38 PM

    • A huge win?? What are they thinking? Any cuts in reimbursement in our industry ARE NOT A VIABLE OPTION. Sure this is slightly less offensive and opens a small possibility for some clinics to SLIGHTLY REDUCE the loss of revenue but it is still unacceptable and the APTA should not try to pass this off as a win and give up the fight. Disappointed and frustrated.

      Posted by Debra Fragala-Pories on 2/27/2020 9:10 AM

    • This is not a win!!!!! I hope the reimbursement cut will cover the increase in unemployment. My company has let go many PTA's due to this new guideline and I am now fearing for my position.

      Posted by William Mozingo on 3/5/2020 8:30 AM

    • As a professional RN with 39 years of service, I find it obscene that a 12 mo certificate program derives salaries nearly or higher than those earned by RNs

      Posted by Mark Vadney on 3/16/2020 3:01 PM

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