Coronavirus: Saskatchewan clinics laying off staff after provincial billing code delays

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WATCH: Provincial delays sending out new Pandemic Virtual Care billing codes to specialist physicians has led multiple clinics to layoff staff and others to stop seeing patients – Apr 8, 2020

A memo from the provincial government shows new billing codes for specialist physicians across Saskatchewan were effective as of March 24.

By April 8, however, they still hadn’t received those codes, leaving physicians unable to appropriately bill for their services.

“Many of us are what’s called Fee-For-Service,” explained Dr. Barbara Konstantynowicz, vice-president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association.

“We run a small business and the economics of the day have impacted us just the same as they have on many small business owners, and so we are very concerned about keeping our offices open and running,” she added speaking generally to the fiscal challenges faced by clinics.

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The new temporary Pandemic Virtual Care codes are for virtual consultations with new and existing patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be used in place of previous virtual care codes that didn’t charge the appropriate amount.

In the memo the province states, “Fee code numbers physicians will use to bill Medical Services are currently being determined.”

Global News spoke with a number of clinics about the impact of the delay; several reported multiple staff members had been laid off a result.

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One physician, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Global News he had been forced to stop seeing patients altogether.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan Health Authority addresses PPE concerns during pandemic: ‘We’re not rationing’

“Our office staff are vital to the running of this business, our practices, but we still have to face those economic realities,” Konstantynowicz noted.

Concerns don’t solely surround staff members, however. Physicians also reported fears that patients who were no longer able to access specialist services through their physicians may turn to the province’s emergency rooms, heightening the risk of exposing themselves or others to COVID-19

In an email, one physician wrote, “I have patients calling my office and telling me they are scared to [go] to the ER because of [COVID-19] even though they probably do warrant assessment in the ER and I can’t assess them in the clinic.”
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And while concerns about keeping their clinics open remain, the physicians still seeing patients are now left facing an even bigger burden: a mounting list of calls, with fewer people to deal with them.

READ MORE: 3,075 coronavirus deaths forecast for Saskatchewan in low-range scenario: SHA

“We’re still there and we’re still working hard. Our goal is to keep all the non-COVID-19 cases well and stable so that if we see a spike in cases, that it won’t be the people that we managed well that will need care at that time,” Konstantynowicz, who also works as a family physician, said.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health said they are working on getting the codes out to physicians but “Medical Services requires time to implement the new temporary service codes into the claims billing system.”

The province also noted that “specialists have been advised not to submit billings for these virtual care services until the service codes are operational.”

The province did not specify a date, or give a timeline, as to when the new billing codes would become available.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.


Editor’s note: this story has been updated to further reflect these codes are for temporary use, during the duration of the pandemic. 

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