Fee code creep among general practitioners and family physicians in Ontario: Why does the ratio of intermediate to minor assessments keep climbing?

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Abstract

Background

"Fee code creep" is the increasing tendency of primary care physicians in Ontario to bill for more intermediate than minor assessments over time. The authors examine the extent and nature of fee code creep and describe physician characteristics associated with the changes.

Methods

A cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of Ontario Health Insurance Plan billing and physician characteristic data was conducted for fee-for-service general practitioners and family physicians (GP/FPs) in Ontario. The ratio of intermediate to minor assessments (I-M ratio) was determined for the period 1978-79 to 1994-95, and the relation of various physician characteristics to high ratios was tested with bivariate and multivariate analysis.

Results

The I-M ratio rose 10-fold, from 0.3 in 1978-79 to 2.9 in 1994-95. Although the I-M ratio was higher for older patients and young children, changes in population age profile over time did not account for any of the increase. The median ratio varied widely among groups of physicians: urban physicians had higher ratios than rural ones (3.9 v. 3.0, p < 0.05), and recent graduates had higher ratios than physicians 60 years of age or older (5.1 v. 2.9, p < 0.05). The I-M ratio was inversely related to number of visits; physicians billing for fewer than 5000 visits had a median ratio of 4.2, whereas those billing for 20 000 visits or more had a median ratio of 1.6.

Interpretation

Fee code creep has contributed to expenditure growth in Ontario. This phenomenon was related to both an increase in I-M ratio over time among physicians practising throughout the study period and an influx of new physicians billing at a higher ratio. Creep was not the result of aging of the population.

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