Thousands of doctors and other medical professionals have steadily billed higher rates for treating elderly patients on Medicare over the last decade — adding $11 billion or more to their fees and signaling a possible rise in medical billing abuse, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found.
Medical groups argue that the fee hikes are justified because treating seniors has grown more complex and time-consuming, both due to new technology and declining health status. The rise in fees may also be a reaction, they say, to years of under-charging, and reflect more accurate billing. The fees are based on a system of billing codes that is structured to make higher payments for treatments that take more time and effort.
But the Center’s analysis of Medicare claims from 2001 through 2010 shows that over time, thousands of providers turned to more expensive Medicare billing codes, while spurning use of cheaper ones. They did so despite little evidence that Medicare patients as a whole are older or sicker than in past years, or that the amount of time doctors spent treating them on average was rising.
While it’s impossible to know precisely why doctors and hospitals moved to better-paying codes in recent years, it’s likely that the trend in part reflects “upcoding,” — the practice of charging for more extensive and costly services than delivered, according to Medicare experts, analysis of the data and a review of government audits.