NOTE: All in-article links open in a new tab.

New Modifiers for Therapy Assistant Services

Published on 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Does it seem that people are less willing to make concessions these days than in the past? I am not sure if this is generally true, but if you look at our governments, it certainly seems so. In Britain, the government cannot agree or compromise to accomplish Brexit, and in our own country, the political parties cannot seem to agree on anything. They also seem completely unwilling to compromise or offer any concessions to the opposing viewpoint. Due to my cynicism from such an environment, I was a bit surprised to read in the 2020 Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) Final Rule  that CMS made 3 significant concessions concerning the requirements for the new modifiers for therapy services provided in whole or in part by a therapy assistant.

These new modifiers are mandated by the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 2018 which required that these modifiers:

  • Be established by January 1, 2019;
  • Be applied to claims lines for outpatient therapy services being furnished in whole or in part by a therapy assistant for dates of services beginning on January 1, 2020; and
  • Effectuate a payment reduction for services furnished on and after January 1, 2022.

This is all in keeping with the major intent of the BBA provision that “for services furnished on or after January 1, 2022, payment for outpatient physical and occupational therapy services for which payment is made under sections 1848 or 1834(k) of the Act which are furnished in whole or in part by a therapy assistant must be paid at 85 percent of the amount that is otherwise applicable.”

This means beginning in 2022, therapy services furnished by physical or occupational therapy assistants will be paid less than services provided by therapists – 15% less to be specific. These services will be paid 85% of the usual applicable payment rate. For example, if a unit of therapeutic exercise (CPT 97110) is normally paid $35, when billed with one of the assistant modifiers, the payment would be $29.75. Remember the PFS therapy rates are dependent on your carrier jurisdiction and the multiple procedure payment reductions (MPPR) continue to apply also.

The modifiers that are required to be reported on therapy line items when the services are furnished in whole or in part by a therapy assistant beginning in 2020 are:

  • CQ Modifier: Outpatient physical therapy services furnished in whole or in part by a physical therapist assistant.
  • CO Modifier: Outpatient occupational therapy services furnished in whole or in part by an occupational therapy assistant.

These new modifiers will be reported alongside the GP and GO modifiers used to identify services furnished under a PT or OT plan of care, respectively. Other modifiers used for therapy services, such as the KX and 59 modifiers, should also continue to be reported. Thank goodness the functional limitation reporting modifiers are no longer required.

In the 2019 PFS Final Rule, CMS finalized a de minimis standard under which a service is considered to be furnished in whole or in part by a PTA or OTA when more than 10% of the service is furnished by the PTA or OTA. For example, for therapy services of 60 minutes, 10% would be 6 minutes and for the assistant to furnish more than 10% would be 7 minutes or more. This means once the PTA/OTA furnishes at least 7 minutes of the service, the CQ/CO modifier would be required to be added to the claim for that service. Untimed codes include services such as evaluative services, group therapy, and supervised modalities. Although assistants cannot perform an evaluation or re-evaluation, they can assist the therapists by performing clinical labor tasks such as obtaining vital signs, providing self-assessment tools to the patient and verifying their completion.

So, what are the concessions CMS made concerning the new therapy modifiers?

  • CMS agreed with commenters that the time when a therapist and a therapist assistant furnish services to the same patient at the same time should not be counted as part of the assistant time. This means the time spent by a PTA/OTA furnishing a therapeutic service “concurrently,” or at the same time, with the therapist will not count for purposes of assessing whether the 10 percent standard has been met. The final policy is that only the minutes that the PTA/OTA spends independent of the therapist will count towards the 10 percent de minimis standard.
  • CMS proposed, for billing purposes, that each outpatient therapy service that is subject to the 10 percent de minimis standard would be identified on the claim by a single procedure code, for both untimed codes and codes described in 15-minute-unit increments. Commenters pointed out the 15-minute code issue, so CMS finalized a revised definition of a service to which the de minimis standard is applied to include untimed codes and each 15-minute unit of codes described in 15-minute increments as a service. This revised definition will allow the separate reporting, on two different claim lines, of the number of 15-minute units of a code to which the therapy assistant modifiers do not apply, and the number of 15-minute units of a code to which the therapy assistant modifiers do apply.

For a 15-minute increment that equals 1 unit of a timed code, the assistant would have to furnish 3 or more minutes of the treatment to meet the 10% de minimis standard. If a PTA independently furnishes 8 consecutive minutes of therapeutic exercises to a patient who receives a total of 45 minutes of ther ex (therapist provides the other 37 minutes of ther ex), then the hospital would bill 2 units of CPT 97110 without the CQ modifier and 1 unit of CPT 97110 with the CQ modifier.

  • CMS proposed to add a requirement that the treatment notes explain, via a short phrase or statement, the application or non-application of the CQ/CO modifier for each service furnished that day. CMS agreed that the addition of narrative phrases for each service could be duplicative of existing documentation requirements so they did not finalize this requirement. Neither does the documentation have to specify therapist and therapy assistant minutes.

However, CMS does expect the documentation in the medical record to be sufficient to know whether a specific service was furnished independently by a therapist or a therapist assistant, or was furnished “in part” by a therapist assistant, in sufficient detail to permit the determination of whether the 10% standard was exceeded.

Particularly related to number 1 and 2 above, CMS intends to provide further detail regarding examples of clinical scenarios to illustrate their final policies regarding the applicability of the therapy assistant modifiers through information that will be posted on the website. Check the CMS therapy website at for updates.

The modifier reporting and future payment reductions do not apply to critical access hospitals (CAHs) or to other providers that are not paid based on PFS rates. It also does not apply to outpatient therapy services that are furnished by, or incident to the services of, physicians or nonphysician practitioners (NPPs). This is because only therapists and not therapy assistants can furnish outpatient therapy services incident to the services of a physician or NPP.

Bottom line for hospitals – be sure to have the new therapy assistant modifiers set up and processes in place to get them appended to line item therapy services. Apply the modifiers:

  • To all therapy services’ billing codes that are furnished in whole by therapy assistants,
  • To untimed therapy services’ billing codes when an assistant independently furnishes more than 10% of the service (time of service divided by 10, rounded to the nearest whole integer, plus one minute)
  • To timed 15-minute increments of a timed-code service when the assistant independently furnishes 3 minutes or more of a 15-minute service (for services > 8 minutes, but < 23, determine 10% as described above for untimed codes, i.e. 8-14 minutes – 2 minutes Assistant time; 15-23 minutes – 3 minutes Assistant time).

This last explanation of assistant time for timed codes is my understanding from the discussion in the final rule. I will be looking for more examples from CMS as promised to verify my understanding is correct. I definitely concede that Medicare rules can be difficult to understand and follow.

Article Author: Debbie Rubio, BS MT (ASCP)
Debbie Rubio, BS MT (ASCP), was the Manager of Regulatory Affairs and Compliance at Medical Management Plus, Inc. Debbie has over twenty-seven years of experience in healthcare including nine years as the Clinical Compliance Coordinator at a large multi-facility health system. In her current position, Debbie monitors, interprets and communicates current and upcoming regulatory and compliance issues as they relate to specific entities concerning Medicare and other payers.

This material was compiled to share information.  MMP, Inc. is not offering legal advice. Every reasonable effort has been taken to ensure the information is accurate and useful.