Physician coding for mental illness reimbursement and the need for mental health parity

Veronika Nicholson, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Many patients with anxiety and depression initially seek treatment from their primary care physicians. Changes in insurance coverage and current mental parity laws, make reimbursement for services a problem. This has led to a coding dilemma for physicians seeking payment for their services. This study seeks to determine first the frequency at which primary care physicians use alternative coding, and secondly, if physicians would change their coding practices, provided reimbursement was assured through changes in mental parity laws. A mail survey was sent to 260 randomly selected primary care physicians, who are family practice, internal medicine, and general practice physicians, and members of the Harris County Medical Society. The survey evaluated the physicians' demographics, the number of patients with psychiatric disorders seen by primary care physicians, the frequency with which physicians used alternative coding, and if mental parity laws changed, the rate at which physicians would use a psychiatric illness diagnosis as the primary diagnostic code. The overall response rate was 23%. Only 47 of the 59 physicians, who responded, qualified for the study and of those 45% used a psychiatric disorder to diagnose patients with a primary psychiatric disorder, 47% used a somatic/symptom disorder, and 8% used a medical diagnosis. From the physicians who would not use a psychiatric diagnosis as a primary ICD-9 code, 88% were afraid of not being reimbursed and 12% were worried about stigma or jeopardizing insurability. If payment were assured using a psychiatric diagnostic code, 81% physicians would use a psychiatric diagnosis as the primary diagnostic code. However, 19% would use an alternative diagnostic code in fear of stigmatizing and/or jeopardizing patients' insurability. Although the sample size of the study design was adequate, our survey did not have an ideal response rate, and no significant correlation was observed. However, it is evident that reimbursement for mental illness continues to be a problem for primary care physicians. The reformation of mental parity laws is necessary to ensure that patients receive mental health services and that primary care physicians are reimbursed. Despite the possibility of improved mental parity legislation, some physicians are still hesitant to assign patients with a mental illness diagnosis, due to the associated stigma, which still plays a role in today's society.

Subject Area

Mental health|Public health

Recommended Citation

Nicholson, Veronika, "Physician coding for mental illness reimbursement and the need for mental health parity" (2007). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1447206.