CMS Final Rule on X-Ray/EKG Interpretations

X-Rays and Electrocardiograms Taken in the Emergency Room

We proposed to pay for the x-ray and/or electrocardiogram (EKG) interpretation that contributes to the diagnosis or treatment of the patient in the emergency room. We will pay for only one x-ray and/or EKG interpretation except under unusual circumstances.

Comment: The comments from radiologists opposed every aspect of the proposal. The primary point raised by virtually all of these commenters was that, by training and experience, they were more qualified than emergency physicians or other nonradiologists to furnish these interpretations. Some radiologists commented that we should require board certification as a requirement to bill for the interpretation of x-rays.

Response: In paying for physicians' services under the Act, we are charged with determining the following:

  • Is the service covered under Medicare?
  • Is the service reasonable and necessary for the individual beneficiary?
  • Is the physician licensed to perform the service in the State in which it is furnished?

In the case of a licensed physician who has furnished a covered service (that is not payable through another code) to a Medicare beneficiary in an emergency room, it is not readily apparent to us upon what basis the claim can be denied. There is no portion of the Act upon which to base a decision that only board-certified radiologist can furnish x-ray interpretations or board-certified cardiologists can furnish EKG interpretations. (Where the Congress has determined that there should be special qualifications in order to furnish a service, as in the case of mammography, a provision was made in the statute.) Our proposed policy for x-ray and EKG interpretation is consistent with how we generally treat other physician services.


Comment: Emergency room physicians supported the direction of the proposal but requested clarification of the proposal including its effect on payment for second interpretations. Many commended us for proposing to change the existing policy but criticized the agency for not going far enough. Several emergency physicians commented that it was unethical for us to withhold compensation from physicians who make life-saving decisions every day based on x-ray and EKG interpretations.


Response: Our proposal addressed situations in which both the emergency physician and the radiologist/cardiologist billed for the same interpretation. It is that situation in which a determination needs to be made of which interpretation contributed to the diagnosis and treatment of the individual patient. If an emergency physician does not bill for the interpretation, there would be no change from existing policy. We would like to stress that if the only bill received is from the radiologist or cardiologist, it is paid on the same basis as current claims.


Comment: We received relatively few comments from physicians and other entities specializing in cardiology procedures. Their comments focused on the cardiologists' greater qualifications to interpret EKGs based on their training and experience.


Response: The discussion above about the qualification of the interpreting radiologist would also apply here. The situation with EKGs is somewhat different than with x-rays because section 13514 of OBRA 1993, Public Law 103-66, enacted August 10, 1993, requires us to make separate payment for EKG interpretations and to exclude the RVUs for EKG interpretations from the RVUs for visits and consultations, making the EKG portion of the current policy as set forth in section 2020G of the Medicare Carriers Manual obsolete.


Comment: We proposed that the radiologist or cardiologist should be paid for the interpretation when it is performed contemporaneously with the diagnosis and treatment of the emergency room patient. This standard would be met if an interpretation were initially conveyed to the treating physician verbally. Nearly all commenters seemed to be troubled by the use of the term "contemporaneous" and requested clarification of the term. Some radiologists indicated that their interpretation is furnished contemporaneously if it is provided timely, which commenters variously defined as 12-24 hours. Other radiologists indicated that there are teleradiology hook-ups to radiologists' homes which should satisfy the need for contemporaneous interpretations. Several emergency room specialists indicated that the circumstances under which a radiologist or cardiologist furnishes a contemporaneous interpretation as discussed in the proposal should be clarified. They expressed concern that the provision of a verbal interpretation by the specialist to the emergency room physician could be used to circumvent the stated intention to pay for the interpretation used in the diagnosis and treatment of the beneficiary.


Response: When we used the term contemporaneous, we meant that the interpretation of the procedure by the radiologist or cardiologist and the diagnosis and treatment of the beneficiary by the physician in the emergency room occur at the same time, as opposed to an interpretation performed hours or days after the beneficiary is sent home. While the argument that the carrier should pay for any interpretation furnished timely sounds reasonable, it does not reflect the realities of claims processing. It would be impossible for a reviewer to make an assessment in every individual case as to whether the second interpretation was furnished "timely". In situations in which both physicians bill for the interpretation, the question to be resolved is whether the radiologist or cardiologist performed the interpretation in time to be used in the diagnosis and treatment of the patient. As set forth in the proposal, we believe that in any case in which the radiologist or cardiologist furnishes the interpretation (a written interpretation or a verbal interpretation that will be written later), the emergency room physician should not bill for the interpretation, and the carrier should pay for the claim submitted by the radiologist or cardiologist. The comments we received from the emergency room physicians did not seem to be requesting payment for interpretations furnished under these conditions. We agree that an interpretation furnished via teleradiology meets the requirement when the interpretation is used in the diagnosis and treatment of the patient.


Comment: Several commenters indicated that emergency room physicians without formal training in interpreting computerized axial tomography (CT) scans will miss subtle changes which could lead to permanent injuries to patients. They also stated that there were problems with the application of the proposal to other diagnostic procedures such as mammography, ultrasound, and upper and lower gastrointestinal series.


Response: This proposal applies only to x-ray procedures and EKGs furnished in emergency rooms.


Comment: Many radiologists indicated that the proposal will increase the Medicare program costs "tremendously" because of the potential for self-referral abuse. The commenters believed that physicians who see patients in the emergency room will order unnecessary tests if they know that they will be able to bill for the interpretations of these tests.


Response: We would be interested in reviewing any evidence the radiologists have that emergency room physicians order additional tests that are not medically necessary when they are permitted to bill for x-ray and EKG interpretations. We are also interested in any suggestions we might offer to the carriers on how to identify such unnecessary testing. We will address any self referral prohibitions within our Stark regulations.


Comment: Several radiologists pointed out that a proper interpretation does not really mean a "check" or a few words on the chart, but requires a full written report.


Response: We agree completely. The requirement for a written report of the interpretation of an x-ray or EKG is an integral part of our proposal. We would point out that less extensive "reviews" by emergency room physicians are not separately billable because payment for such reviews is included in the payment for the evaluation and management services rendered in an emergency room.


Comment: Many radiologists commented that, while some emergency medicine specialists are very proficient at reading trauma films, they lack the necessary training to identify subtle changes. For example, a patient is brought into the emergency room with chest trauma. The commenter indicated that the emergency physician would identify the broken ribs but miss a lung tumor. Several other commenters were concerned that a missed early diagnosis could result form an interpretation performed by a nonradiologist emergency room physician while a radiologist would review the total film rather than just the area of clinical concern.


Response: It seems to us that the major purpose of the emergency room x-ray in this instance would be to diagnose the degree of chest trauma. However, in this circumstance, if the emergency physician billed for the interpretation and a radiologist made an additional finding of a lung tumor, it would be appropriate for the carrier to pay for both interpretations.


Comment: One radiologist indicated that all too often the emergency room preliminary interpretation is made by a nurse or medical student and the films are never reviewed by a staff emergency room physician.


Response: It is difficult to see how such an observation relates to our proposal. A physician could not provide a written interpretation of an x-ray unless he or she personally viewed it. A written report of interpretation is an integral part of our proposal.


Comment: Many commenters objected to the hospital playing a role in determining which physician should bill for the interpretation of these procedures. The following comments were received:


  • Hospitals are not capable of making such determinations.
  • It would be in the financial interest of the hospital for the interpretation to be paid to those physicians who order the most tests.
  • The medical staff is usually a legally separate and independent body from the hospital, and hospitals have no authority to become involved in such matters.
  • Such decisions should be left to peer review.
  • Hospitals should be encouraged to ensure that the billed interpretation is the one upon which treatment is based.
  • The concept of a hospital making a policy decision as to which physician should get paid for interpretations will be a regulatory nightmare and the time and money carriers will have to expend to monitor the situations will be enormous. However, one emergency room physician commented that he hoped the proposal would encourage radiologist and cardiologists to furnish these interpretations in a more timely fashion.

Response: In developing our proposal, we considered requiring hospitals to notify their local carrier of the identity of the physician who would be performing these interpretations for their patients. We determined that such a requirement would have had an effect as indicated by one of the commenters and that our authority to impose such a requirement was questionable. However, under our proposal, we suggested that hospitals act to ensure that only one interpretation is billed. (Hospitals could do this now; we are not mandating an additional duty.) If a carrier receives only one claim, there will be no problem. The problem will arise when hospitals do not take action and the carrier receives two claims for each interpretation and then must make a determination about which claim to pay. It seems reasonable to us for hospitals to work with their medical staffs to establish guidelines for the billing of x-ray and EKG interpretations for emergency room patients.


Comment: Some commenters expressed concern about the effect of the proposal on small, rural hospitals in which there are an insufficient number of radiologists to cover the emergency room 24 hours a day. It was pointed out that many of these hospitals either go without any service at all and ship films to radiologists for interpretation or receive direct radiologist's services on an infrequent basis each week. One commenter indicated that consideration should be given to the size of the hospital, the definition of what constitutes an emergency room, and the availability of radiologic services.


Response: Since our proposal is limited to emergency room services, if a hospital does not have an emergency room and no claims with a place of service indicator of emergency room are received, there does not appear to be a problem. Likewise, if there is an emergency room in a hospital but no emergency room physician bills for an interpretation of the test, there is also no problem. We indicated in our proposal that if a carrier receives only one claim for a reasonable and necessary interpretation of an x-ray or EKG, it would pay the claim, generally without further development.


Comment: One commenter indicated that the proposal was inappropriate because emergency room physicians are thankful that radiologists will interpret the overnight x-rays the next morning in view of the harried circumstances under which services are furnished in the emergency room.


Response: Our proposal does not require emergency room physicians to bill for these interpretations. If the emergency room physicians do not bill for these interpretations, the radiologist and cardiologist may continue to be paid for the interpretations. Our proposal has no effect on situations in which the emergency physician does not wish to bill for the interpretation.


Comment: A carrier medical director expressed concern that it will be impossible to determine from a claim whether the emergency physician has submitted written documentation of the x-ray or EKG interpretation for the medical record. The carrier medical director went onto indicate that encouraging hospitals to exercise their authority to ensure that only one claim for interpretation is received will not work and recommended that the current policy should be maintained.


Response: By submitting a claim for the interpretation of an x-ray or EKG, the emergency room physician is stating that he or she has prepared a written interpretation of the procedure for inclusion in the patient's medical record. We do not agree that the current manual policy works well since it became partially obsolete by the physician fee schedule.


Comment: Another carrier medical director indicated that the requirement for a written report be strengthened to indicate that Medicare is requiring a separately written report which meets the hospital's requirement for an official report.


Response: We agree and will include such a written report requirement in the revised manual instructions.


Comment: Some emergency room physicians commented that they should be paid for the x-ray and EKG interpretation in almost every case since it is they who furnish the real-time service.


Response: We believe that our proposal is a better approach. There is no question that the cardiologist or radiologist should be paid for the interpretation when that physician furnishes the service in time to be used in the diagnosis and treatment of the patient. Further, we believe that there are physicians who work in emergency rooms who prefer to defer to a cardiologist or radiologist for the final interpretation and do not wish to prepare written reports or bill for interpretations. However, our proposal provides for payment when the emergency room physician provides a written interpretation that contributed to the diagnosis and treatment of the patient.


Comment: One commenter indicated that, in their community hospital, the radiologist is summoned at the time of the initial diagnosis and treatment for the most serious cases, whereas, for less urgent examinations, the formal interpretation is made the following morning. The commenter went on to say that the issue should be the responsiveness of the radiologist when his or her input will affect care, and that having x-rays read by nonradiologists is moving in the wrong direction.


Response: As indicated previously, interpretations by radiologists used for the diagnosis and treatment of the patient would be payable.


Comment: A few commenters suggested that the appropriate approach is to split the fee for the interpretation between the radiologist and the ER physician.


Response: We do not believe that his would be a workable approach since the carrier would not know when or if it would receive the second claim.


Comment: Radiologists made the following additional comments:


  • The majority of carrier medical directors do not support the proposal.
  • The changes do not reflect the finding of the July 1993 report of the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, entitled "Medicare's Reimbursement for Interpretations of Hospital Emergency Room X-Rays."

Response: We did present the proposal to a committee of carrier medical directors during a monthly conference call on operational issues and the views were mixed. The major impression we drew from their comments was that they were most concerned with enforcement issues. We will continue to seek the guidance of the carrier medical directors and other interested parties in developing instructions to implement this policy.

The recommendation of the OIG report was to pay for reinterpretations of x-rays only when attending physicians specifically request a second physician's interpretation in order to render appropriate medical care before the patient is discharged. Any other reinterpretation of the attending physician's original interpretation should be treated and reimbursed as part of the hospital's quality assurance program.

Using 1990 data, the OIG projected saving of $20.4 million based on a cessation on payments for radiologists' interpretations of x-rays if its recommendation were implemented. We believe that the OIG recommendation would result in no payment for interpretations of these services in many cases; therefore, we reject that portion of the recommendation. In other words, we believe that one physician should be paid for the interpretation of an x-ray.


Comment: One commenter suggested that the solution to this problem be developed through the CPT system. The commenter suggested that we propose separate codes for the emergent reading of the test and a second, different code for the over-read. This commenter and some others indicated that payment for these interpretations be evenly divided between the two codes.


Response: The commenter may want to refer this proposal to the CPT Editorial Panel.


Final Decision: We are adopting the policy as set forth in the proposed rule for services furnished on or after January 1, 1996.

Listed below are the elements of our policy:

  • The carrier will pay separately for only one interpretation of an EKG or x-ray procedure furnished to an emergency room patient. However, there is a provision for payment of second interpretation under unusual circumstances such as a questionable finding for which the physician performing the initial interpretation believes another physician's expertise is needed.
  • The professional component of a diagnostic procedure furnished to a beneficiary in a hospital includes an interpretation and written report for inclusion in the beneficiary's medical record maintained by the hospital. We have placed this requirement in the radiology section of the regulations on services of physicians in providers at S 405.554(a). (Under the recodification, this section becomes 415.120(a)).
  • We distinguish between an "interpretation and report" of an x-ray or an
  • EKG procedure and a "review" of the procedure. An interpretation and report of the procedure is separately payable by the carrier. A review of the findings of these procedures, without a written report, does not meet the conditions for separate payment of the services since the review is already included in the emergency room visit payment.
  • In the case of multiple bills for the same interpretations and report, we will instruct the carriers to adopt the following procedures:
    • Cease consideration of physician specialty in deciding which interpretation and report to pay regardless of when the service is performed.
    • Pay for the interpretation and report that directly contributed to the diagnosis and treatment of the individual patient.
    • Pay for the interpretation billed by the cardiologist or radiologist if the interpretation of the procedure is performed at the same time as the diagnosis and treatment of the beneficiary. (This interpretation may be a verbal report conveyed to the treating physician that will be written in a report at a later time.)
  • We will minimize the carrier's need to make decisions about which claim to pay when multiple claims for the interpretation and report of the same procedure are received by --
    • Encouraging hospitals to work with their medical staffs to ensure that only one claim per interpretation is submitted;
    • Advising hospitals that if they allow a physician to perform and bill for a medically necessary service (the interpretation and report) in an emergency room and permit another physician to perform and bill for the same service, the Medicare carrier will not pay two claims;
    • Advising hospitals that the Medicare carrier may determine that the hospital's "official interpretation" is for quality control and liability purposes only and is a service to the hospital rather than to an individual beneficiary; and
    • Advising hospitals that Medicare fiscal intermediaries consider costs incurred for quality control activities in determining payments to hospitals.
  • When the Medicare carrier receives only one claim for an interpretation and the procedure is reasonable and necessary, the carrier will pay the claim.
  • We will presume that the one service billed was a service to the individual beneficiary and not a quality control measure.
    • Manual instructions to the carriers will be issued as soon as possible.
    • This policy change is not explicitly addressed in our regulations.


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