SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
That which walks like a duck and talks like a duck may not in fact be a duck. Now, that's the argument the American Medical Association used for years to try to stop the public from knowing what doctors billed Medicare for taking care of patients.
The AMA claimed that doctors who charge the government a lot more money than their peers may be doing nothing wrong, but it's easy to misinterpret complicated billing data. The AMA finally lost the fight to withhold the information. It went public last month. Now, a look at some of that data from Colorado and California. It shows some red flags, but also how there may be more to the data than meets the eye. We start with KQED's April Dembosky in San Francisco.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: In order to get paid, doctors have to label everything they do for a patient with a billing code. Routine visits for established patients are billed on a scale of one to five. A level one code is for a short, easy office visit. And a level five is the most complicated visit. It also pays the most. Medical billing expert Patrice Morin-Spatz says a doctor has to meet a multi-part test for a visit to qualify as a level five.
PATRICE MORIN-SPATZ: You must look at the kind of history he did, the kind of exam that he or she did and then finally the kind of medical decision-making that was provided in order to come up with a plan for improving that patient's overall health condition.
DEMBOSKY: KQED and independent newsroom ProPublica took a close look at these office visit codes. They're the most common and account for about $12 billion in Medicare spending every year. One California doctor, Gary Ordog, billed Medicare for a level five visit on average 30 times for each of his patients in 2012. Morin-Spatz says that's very unusual.
MORIN-SPATZ: Huge red flags really high up in the sky waving their arms ferociously.
DEMBOSKY: The average California doctor only bills for one or two of these high-level visits per year per patient. When Morin-Spatz sees doctors with coding practices like that, she thinks one thing.
MORIN-SPATZ: I think that they are trying to code based on how much money they want, as opposed to coding with a goal to satisfy the requirements of each particular level of service.
DEMBOSKY: California's medical board has tried to revoke Ordog's medical license for quote, "incompetence, making false statements and inadequate record-keeping." He's currently practicing on probation and did not return multiple requests for comment. Ordog is one of hundreds of doctors in California with unusual billing patterns.
In fact, of the top five doctors in the country who billed the highest number of the most complex visits, three are from California. Nationwide some 1,800 doctors billed every one of their office visits at the highest level possible. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.
ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: I'm Eric Whitney in Denver. In Colorado, 71 doctors billed at the highest possible level for every one of their Medicare office visits. NPR tried to contact 15 of them. Most didn't return our phone calls, but Dr. Marilyn Levi did.
MARYLIN LEVI: I'm director of transplant infectious diseases at the University of Colorado in Denver.
WHITNEY: Levi works in the only academic medical center for hundreds of miles in any direction. It's the place other hospitals all over the region send some of their toughest patients.
LEVI: And therefore the time that is required to take care of them is longer than some of the other specialties in infectious disease. And that's the reason for the longer time period required for their evaluation and treatment. And that results in the higher coding.
WHITNEY: That kind of information isn't obvious in the huge trove of Medicare payment data that was made public for the first time last month. Levi's concerned people will misinterpret them.
LEVI: There has to be an understanding and a recognition of specialty care that is provided and only in a few places. So I think it's dangerous to lump everyone together and base everything on a code. Dr. Aris Sophocles says that's a perfectly reasonable caution, but not every doctor who frequently bills at the highest level is being honest.
ARIS SOPHOCLES: When I see someone in family medicine, I get suspicious. Similarly, in other specialties such as general internal medicine, gastroenterology, I become suspicious.
WHITNEY: Sophocles is hardly on a witch hunt. In fact, he's also an attorney and helps defend doctors who get prosecuted for having fishy-looking billing practices. He says Medicare does audit doctors. And some have had to pay the agency back or even face jail time, which causes many to err on the side of under-coding or to charge less than maybe they should.
SOPHOCLES: Some though are either unaware or unafraid. And they tend to over-code anyhow. And the release of this database may indicate who those people are.
WHITNEY: In a statement, Medicare officials said it would be highly unusual for doctors to bill at the highest level 100 percent of the time. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.
SIMON: And this story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.