When Co-Management with Ophthalmologists Is Appropriate

The Medicare fiscal intermediary for California defines co-management as the “planned transfer of care during the global period from the operating surgeon to another qualified provider.” Optometrists and ophthalmologists have long engaged in the practice of co-managing cataract patients undergoing surgery. Typically, optometrists refer their patient out to an ophthalmologist for surgery, and the ophthalmologist in turn refers the patient back to the optometrist for his or her post-operative care.

This type of co-management arrangement can be hugely beneficial for the patient. Patients are able to receive the specialty surgical services they require from an ophthalmologist, while retaining access to their regular optometrist – who may be more geographically convenient to the patient and who often have provided years of consistent optometric care to the patient – for post-operative care. When these circumstances are present, and when the patient provides valid and informed consent, co-management can be a vital tool for providing optimal care to cataract surgery patients.

Because of some ostensibly conflicting language in federal laws and regulations, however, confusion has sometimes arisen about the precise circumstances under which co-management is permissible. The federal anti-kickback statute provides civil and criminal penalties for giving or receiving “remuneration” in exchange for referrals. Because the law is so broad, the federal government outlined many “safe harbors” which, while potentially covered by the anti-kickback statute, would not be prosecuted. One of these safe harbors specifically exempts co-management from the anti-kickback prohibition, so long as certain conditions are met. Although the safe harbor language prohibited the sharing or splitting of a Medicare global fee, the government later clarified that “we do not mean to suggest that all specialty referral arrangements involving splitting of global fees are illegal under the anti-kickback statute.” Rather, making this determination requires a “case-by-case analysis” of factors such as whether the services are medically necessary, whether the timing of referrals is clinically appropriate, and whether the services performed are commensurate with the portion of the global fee received.

The American Optometric Association (AOA) later set forth a bulletin that echoed and expanded on the above factors. AOA’s seven factors to be considered when determining whether co-management in a given instance is appropriate are:

1. The selection of an operating surgeon for patient referral should be based on providing the best potential outcomes for that patient. Financial relationships between providers should not be a factor.
2. The patient’s right to choose the method of postoperative care should be recognized consistent with the best medical interest of the patient.
3. Co-management of post-operative care should be determined on a case-by-case analysis and not prearranged. For example, agreements to refer all patients back on a date certain should be avoided. The patient should be advised prior to surgery of potential postoperative management options.
4. The transfer of post-operative care must be clinically appropriate and depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the surgical event.
5. Following surgery, transfer of care from the operating surgeon to an optometrist should occur when clinically appropriate at a mutually agreed upon time or circumstance; and such time should be clearly documented via correspondence and be included in the patient’s medical record. For example, Section 4822 of the Medicare Carriers’ manual states that “Both the surgeon and the physician providing the postoperative care must keep a written transfer agreement in the beneficiary’s record.” This may be accomplished by including the appropriate information in the referral letter from the ophthalmic surgeon to the optometrist at the time of transfer of care.
6. The operating surgeon and the co-managing optometrist should communicate during the post-operative period to assure the best possible outcome for the patient.
7. Compensation for care should be commensurate with the services provided. Cases involving care for Medicare beneficiaries should reflect proper use of modifiers and other Medicare billing instructions.
Similarly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has also published an advisory opinion clarifying that co-management is perfectly appropriate under certain circumstances, specifically where the postoperative care can be provided by a qualified non-ophthalmologic physician.

Medical providers must of course tread very carefully when contemplating the co-management of patients so as not to encroach on the type of arrangements prohibited by the federal anti-kickback statute. Most importantly, all decisions should be based on the best potential outcome for the patient, not on any financial arrangement between providers. Blanket contracts to refer patients should especially be avoided, since such an arrangement would preclude the type of case-by-case analysis proscribed by the federal government. However, when the factors discussed above are present, and when the patient provides valid and informed consent, co-management has historically been a vital tool to providing optimal care for cataract surgery patients. There have been no recent changes in the law to preclude the future practice of co-management by optometrists and ophthalmologists when the appropriate circumstances are present.