CMS Issues Transmittal on Changes to Ambulance Staffing Requirements; Clarifications to Service Level Definitions for Ground Ambulance Services
On September 12, 2016, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued Transmittal 226. This Transmittal incorporates the recent changes to the vehicle staffing requirements into the Medicare Online Manual System. The Transmittal is also intended to provide clarification on the definitions for certain levels of ground ambulance service. The changes made by this Transmittal go into effect on December 12, 2016.
Vehicle Staffing Requirements
In the CY 2016 Physician Fee Schedule final rule (November 16, 2015), CMS revised its regulations related to the staffing of ground ambulance services. Previously, the Medicare regulations at 42 C.F.R. 410.41 required that all ground ambulances be staffed by a minimum of two crewmembers, at least one of whom must be certified as an EMT-Basic and who must be legally authorized to operate all of the lifesaving and life-sustaining equipment on board the vehicle. For ALS vehicles, there was a further requirement that at least one of the two crewmembers must be certified as a paramedic or EMT and qualified to perform one or more ALS services.
In the 2016 final rule, CMS revised the regulation to further require that the ambulance supplier meet all applicable state and local laws related to the staffing of vehicles. CMS indicated that these changes are intended to address jurisdictions that impose more stringent requirements on ambulance providers (e.g., a requirement that both staff members be certified as EMTs). CMS further indicated that these changes were prompted, in part, by a report from the HHS Office of the Inspector General, which expressed concern over the fact that the current regulations do not set forth licensure or certification requirements for the second crew member.
In this Transmittal, CMS is updating Section 10.1.2 of Chapter 10 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual to reflect the changes to the underlying regulations. Specifically, the Manual Section now makes clear that BLS and ALS vehicles must meet the staffing requirements under state and local laws. For BLS vehicles, the new definition also clarifies that at least one of the crewmembers must be certified at a minimum at the EMT-Basic level by the state or local authority where the services are being furnished. For ALS vehicles, the new definition clarifies that at least one of the crewmembers must be certified as an EMT-Intermediate or EMT-Paramedic by the state or local authority where the services are being furnished.
Note: A number of AAA members have expressed concern with the reference to “EMT-Intermediate” in the paragraph defining the staffing requirements for ALS vehicles. These members note that their state may be moving away from the “EMT-I” designation, in favor of the “Advanced EMT,” “EMT-Enhanced,” or other similar designation. These members expressed concern that Medicare contractors may interpret this clarification literally, and therefore downgrade claims properly billed ALS based on the services provided by Advanced EMTs or other higher EMT certifications.
The AAA recognizes the concerns expressed by these members. It should be noted that the Manual changes being made by this Transmittal accurately reflect the current wording of the regulation. It should also be noted that these changes do not impact the definition of “Advanced Life Support (ALS) personnel” set forth in 42 C.F.R. §414.605. While that definition also makes reference to the EMT-Intermediate licensure, the definition makes clear that any individual trained to a higher level than the EMT-Basic licensure qualifies as an ALS crewmember.
Ground Ambulance Service Definitions
The Transmittal also makes a number of clarifications to the ground ambulance services definitions set forth in Section 30.1.1 of Chapter 10 of the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual. These changes are summarized below:
- Basic Life Support (BLS) – CMS is revising the definition to align with the new minimum staffing requirements discussed above.
- Basic Life Support (BLS) – Emergency – The current definition of the BLS emergency level of service reads as follows:
“When medically necessary, the provision of BLS services, as specified above, in the context of an emergency response. An emergency response is one that, at the time the ambulance provider or supplier is called, it responds immediately. An immediate response is one in which the ambulance provider/supplier begins as quickly as possible to take the steps necessary to respond to the call.”
CMS is removing the second and third sentences of the current definition. In their place, CMS is inserting a parenthetical referencing the definition of an “emergency response” later in this same section of the manual.
- Advanced Life Support, Level 1 (ALS1) – CMS is revising the definition to align with the new minimum staffing requirements discussed above. It is also clarifying that the ALS assessment must be provided by ALS personnel.
- Advanced Life Support Assessment – The existing definition in the CMS Manual ends with the following sentence: “An ALS assessment does not necessarily result in a determination that the patient requires an ALS level of service.” In recent years, a number of Medicare contractors have interpreted this sentence to mean that the provision of a valid ALS assessment would not necessarily entitle the ambulance supplier to bill for the ALS emergency base rate, unless the documentation clearly established the provision of an ALS intervention.
CMS is adding a sentence to the end of the definition that clarifies that an ambulance supplier would be permitted to bill for the ALS emergency base, even if the ALS assessment results in a determination that the patient would not require one or more ALS interventions. CMS further clarified that the ability to bill for an ALS emergency base rate is predicated on the ambulance transport otherwise meeting the medical necessity requirement.
- Advanced Life Support, Level 1 (ALS1) – Emergency – Similar to the change to the definition of BLS emergency discussed above, CMS is removing the second and third sentences of the current definition, and replacing them with a parenthetical reference to the definition of an “emergency response.”
- Advanced Life Support, Level 2 (ALS2) – CMS is rewording the definition, without making any substantive change. ALS-2 continues to be billable in situations involving a medically necessary transport of a patient, where the crew either: (1) provides one of the seven listed ALS-2 procedures (manual defibrillation/cardioversion, endotracheal intubation, etc.) or (2) the administration of three or more medications by IV push/bolus or continuous infusion. The changes largely relate to how you count, for purposes of determining whether you can bill ALS-2, multiple administrations of the same IV medication. Conceptually, CMS is indicating that a single “dose” requires a suitable quantity and amount of time between administrations, in accordance with standard medical protocols. CMS is further indicating that a deliberate attempt to administer a standard dose in increments would not qualify as ALS-2. In sum, to the extent a medication is administered in standard doses in accordance with pre-existing protocols, each separate administration would count separately towards the ALS-2 standard of three or more administrations; however, any attempt to cut the standard dose into multiple administrations would count as only a single administration for purposes of determining whether the ALS-2 standard was met.
- Specialty Care Transport (SCT) – CMS is rewording the language in the “Application” section of this definition, without making any substantive change.
- Paramedic Intercept (PI) – CMS is revising the definition to reflect the change in how a “rural area” is identified. The old definition included any area: (1) designed as rural by a state law or regulation or (2) any area outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or in New England, outside a New England County Metropolitan Area. Under the new definition, an area is considered rural to the extent it is designated as such by state law or regulation or to the extent it is located in a rural census tract of an MSA using the most recent version of the Goldsmith Modification.
- Services in a Rural Area – CMS is eliminating the reference to New England County Metropolitan Areas, as these areas are no longer relevant to a determination of rural. Under the new definition, an area will be considered rural to the extent: (1) it is located outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or (2) is identified as rural using the most recent version of the Goldsmith Modification, even though the area falls within an MSA.
- Emergency Response – CMS is adding language clarifying that the nature of an ambulance provider’s response (i.e., emergent or non-emergent) does not independently establish medical necessity for the ambulance transport.
- Interfacility Transport – CMS is adding a new definition for the purposes of billing SCT, which establishes that the interfacility transportation requirement is met whenever the origin and destination are both one of the following: (1) a hospital or skilled nursing facility that participates in the Medicare program or (2) a hospital-based facility that meets Medicare’s requirements for provider-based status.