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Massage Today
January, 2006, Vol. 06, Issue 01

"Incident To" Issues

By Cliff Korn, BS, LMT, NCTMB

Are we professional, or not? Should those who choose to practice under the term "massage therapist" have the option of being considered a health care provider? Are we part of a "profession" that can benefit or be harmed by the actions of outside organizations/professions? Can, or should, we politicize the work we do by letting regulators know our opinions?

Your answers to these questions likely will determine your comfort level with this monthly editorial.

For the record, I answer all of them affirmatively. I'm hoping enough of you do, too, and will let your feelings be known about something that has insidious downside implications for segments of our profession.

I am speaking about the ruling the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued to prohibit Medicare reimbursement for therapy services provided "incident to" a physician's office visit. As of July 25, Medicare will pay physicians for physical, occupational and speech pathology therapy performed in their office as an incident to service only if it's done by a licensed therapist (or an assistant therapist supervised by a licensed therapist). When CMS uses the term "therapist," they now mean only physical therapists, occupational therapists or speech and language/hearing pathologists. Previously, Medicare paid physicians for incident to therapy services even when other providers, such as massage therapists, athletic trainers or physical therapy aides, performed it. However, Medicare no longer considers physician supervision of these auxiliary providers to be sufficient. Under the new rule, physicians are not permitted to bill Medicare for therapy services performed by athletic trainers, kinesiologists, therapy aides, therapist assistants, massage therapists, or any other non-therapist professionals.

It appears to me that we, and many other professions, were out-lobbied by other groups. The December 2004 issue of PT Magazine had an article entitled, "Physical Therapists Win Change in Medicare 'Incident To' Rules." The PTs of the world seem happy with the law changes. It seems like such a simple thing on the surface - a ruling that says physical therapy must be performed by a physical therapist. That makes sense, doesn't it? I think massage therapy should be performed by a massage therapist, too! As they say, though, the devil is in the details, and the definition of what constitutes "incident to" therapy adversely affects many massage therapists. As you well know, there is a significant difference between the performance of "physical therapy" and the delivery of "physical medicine."

This issue has been on the radar screen for several years, but the "blip" was not a bright one because CMS was reporting that the proposed changes merely were a clarification of existing CMS policy, and it was required by a 1997 statute. A quick Web search brings much information suggesting this hardly was accurate. My own reading indicates a significant change in policy, as opposed to just a clarification.

Massage Today columnist Vivian Madison-Mahoney writes, "I attended the recent press event in Washington, D.C., where Coalition members spoke out and expressed their concerns on how the recent Medicare ruling has affected them. This ruling limits only PTs, OTs and SLPs to provide therapy to physician patients where Medicare is reimbursing for the treatment." She goes on to state, "Doctors everywhere are feeling the sting of this ruling in that they are not allowed to decide what treatment, and who is best to provide it, for their patients. Therapists and other qualified providers who have been allowed to provide treatment 'incident to' physician's services for the past seven years are now out of work across the nation due to this ruling.This includes nearly 1,200 lymphedema therapists who are mainly massage therapists, in addition to thousands of other qualified providers and massage therapists who treat other conditions for the Medicare patient such as musculoskeletal conditions."

So, how did this ruling occur? Was there a great expression of concern from physicians and patients? Apparently not, since many physician groups, including the American Medical Association, joined a coalition to try to stop the ruling! The AMA formally stated, "The AMA urges CMS to withdraw its proposed changes for incident to physical therapy services and re-issue a new proposal in a later proposed rule after consulting with all affected physician and other health professional organizations"

The National Athletic Trainers Association went so far as to file suit to stop the proposed change, but their suit was set aside. There are some 23 different professional groups who have formed The Coalition to Preserve Patient Access to Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services (

My concern, and the primary reason I am bringing this to your attention, is not because so many massage therapists get reimbursed by Medicare; they don't. I find this issue important because so much of what happens with Medicare filters down to the private segment. I am very concerned that the commercial insurance carriers will find this an attractive way to limit payment for currently covered services. This increases profits for the three select therapy groups, as well as the insurance carriers, to the detriment of the public and all other care groups who otherwise are qualified to perform the services. It also undermines the patient/physician contract, as neither will be able to choose the best provider for a specific service. Make this a personal issue - see yourself, a parent or another loved one as a Medicare recipient in need of postsurgical lymphedema treatment. Now, decide if you'd rather have the treatment performed by any PT (because it could be reimbursed), or by a massage therapist specifically trained in lymphatic drainage. Medicare patients who seek "therapy-incident to" services from anyone other than a physical therapist, occupational therapist or speech/language pathologist might be denied coverage.

I strongly urge you to visit the Web site listed above and read the links listed under "Coalition Information." Then contact your professional associations to see what they are doing about this. Follow up by getting involved personally, and make calls to your congressional offices and let them know what actions you'd like taken. It's my opinion that CMS should revise its current ill-conceived "incident to" policy and revert to the one that since 2001 has stated that "any individual" can provide therapy services. What do you think?

Thanks for listening!

Massage Today encourages letters to the editor to discuss matters related to the publication's content. Letters may be published in a future issue or online. Please send all correspondence by e-mail to , or by regular mail to:

Massage Today
P.O. Box 4139
Huntington Beach, CA 92605

Former editor of Massage Today, Cliff is owner of Windham Health Center Neuromuscular Therapy LLC. He is nationally certified in therapeutic massage & bodywork and is licensed as a massage therapist by the states of New Hampshire and Florida. Cliff is a member of the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners; a professional member and past president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association; a certified member of the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, Inc.; and a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.


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