Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes are an integral part of the healthcare industry. They provide a standardized language for medical, surgical, and diagnostic services, enabling clear communication among healthcare providers, patients, and insurers. This article will delve into the history, current use, and future of CPT codes, with a particular focus on their application in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy billing.

A Brief History of CPT Codes. What Are CPT Codes?

The American Medical Association (AMA) introduced CPT codes in 1966 to standardize the terminology used to describe medical, surgical, and diagnostic services. Initially, the first edition of CPT was primarily focused on surgical procedures. However, over the years, it has evolved to include a wide range of services across various medical disciplines.

In 1983, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) adopted CPT as part of the Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS), further cementing its role in the healthcare industry. Today, with more than 10,000 codes, CPT is the most widely accepted medical nomenclature used to report medical procedures and services to health insurance programs.

Current Use of CPT Codes

CPT codes are currently used to describe tests, surgeries, evaluations, and any other medical procedure performed by a healthcare provider on a patient. They are essential for billing outpatient and office procedures and are the preferred system for coding and describing healthcare services and procedures in federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

In the realm of ABA therapy, CPT codes guide the billing process. For instance, code 97151 is used for the initial behavior identification assessment, while codes like 97153, 97155, and 0373T are used for adaptive behavior treatment. These codes help ensure that ABA therapists are accurately compensated for their services.

The Future of CPT Codes

The future of CPT codes looks promising, with continuous updates and revisions to keep pace with advancements in medical technology and practices. For instance, the AMA has announced 393 editorial changes in the 2023 CPT code set, including 225 new codes, 75 deletions, and 93 revisions. These changes aim to reduce the medical coding burden for evaluation and management services, among other things.

In the context of ABA therapy, the future may see the introduction of more specific and descriptive codes to accurately represent the wide range of ABA services, thereby improving billing accuracy and efficiency.

Scenario Examples

To better understand the application of CPT codes, let’s consider a few scenarios:

  1. Scenario 1: A patient visits a general practitioner for a routine check-up. The doctor performs a comprehensive physical examination and discusses the patient’s medical history. The CPT code for this service could be 99215, which represents a comprehensive, high-complexity office visit.
  2. Scenario 2: A child with autism undergoes an initial behavior identification assessment as part of their ABA therapy. The ABA therapist would use the CPT code 97151 for billing this service.
  3. Scenario 3: A patient undergoes a surgical procedure to remove their appendix. The surgeon would use the CPT code 44970, which represents a laparoscopic appendectomy.
  4. Scenario 4: A patient visits a psychiatrist for a 30-minute psychotherapy session. The psychiatrist would use the CPT code 90832 for this service.
  5. Scenario 5: A patient receives physical therapy for rehabilitation after a hip replacement surgery. The physical therapist might use the CPT code 97110, which represents a therapeutic exercise.

Pros, Cons, and Challenges

While CPT codes have revolutionized medical billing, they are not without their challenges. On the positive side, they have standardized the language used in healthcare, making communication among providers, patients, and insurers more straightforward and efficient. They also facilitate accurate billing and reimbursement.

However, the use of CPT codes can be complex and time-consuming. Healthcare providers need to stay updated with constant changes and revisions to the codes. Incorrect or outdated codes can lead to billing errors, disputes with insurance companies, and potential loss of revenue.

One of the common challenges faced by healthcare providers is ‘unbundling‘ codes, which involves separately billing services that should be billed together under a single code. Another challenge is ‘upcoding,’ where a higher-priced service is billed instead of the service actually provided. Both practices can lead to penalties and fines.

In the context of ABA therapy, therapists often face challenges due to the complexity of codes and claims processing. Keeping up with the specific codes for different ABA services can be daunting, and any mistakes can lead to claim denials and delayed payments.


CPT codes play a crucial role in the healthcare industry, providing a standardized language for medical services and facilitating accurate billing and reimbursement. As they continue to evolve, healthcare providers must stay abreast of the changes and ensure accurate coding to optimize their billing processes and revenue cycle management. Despite the challenges, the benefits of CPT codes in improving communication, billing accuracy, and patient care are undeniable.