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Skin Lesion Excision: Answer 3 Questions to Code Correctly

Skin Lesion Excision: Answer 3 Questions to Code Correctly

To accurately code for skin lesion excision, you need to extract from the documentation the answers to three very important questions:

  1. Was the lesion benign or malignant?
  2. Where was the lesion located (anatomic site)?
  3. What was the excised diameter of the lesion?

Let’s examine how these parameters are determined, and how they affect your code selection.

Determine Classification

Skin lesion excision codes fall into two main classifications: Those describing benign (non-cancerous) lesions and those describing malignant (cancerous) lesions. You must determine from the pathology report whether the neoplasm is benign, in-situ, malignant, or of uncertain histologic behavior.
If the pathology report describes a benign lesion, or one of uncertain behavior (e.g., indications of atypia or dysplasia), you must use a benign lesion CPT® code (11400-11446).

To assign a malignant lesion CPT® code (11600-11646), the pathology report must confirm a malignancy, which may be primary (malignancy at the site where a cancer begins to grow), secondary (malignancy has spread from the primary site to other parts of the body), or in-situ (an early-stage tumor that may evolve into an invasive malignancy).

Be certain that your code selection is backed up by the pathology report, even if that means holding the claim for a few days. If you don’t have a pathology report to confirm the diagnosis, you must assign an unspecified diagnosis and a benign lesion excision CPT® code (11400-11471). The only legitimate exception to this rule is if the provider performs a re-excision to obtain clear margins at a later operative session. In such a case, report the same diagnosis as that used for the initial procedure.

Determine Location

Report each skin lesion excision independently, using the following site-specific classifications:
Benign lesion

  • Trunk, arms, legs – 11400-11406
  • Scalp, neck, hands feet, genitalia – 11420-11426
  • Face, ears, eyelids, nose, lips, mucous membrane – 11440-11446

Malignant lesion

  • Trunk, arms, legs – 11600-11606
  • Scalp, neck, hands, feet, genitalia – 11620-11626
  • Face, ears, eyelids (skin only), nose, lips – 11640-11646

Calculate Lesion Size

Size is of primary importance when reporting skin lesion excision. Per CPT® lesion excision coding guidelines, “Code selection is determined by measuring the greatest clinical diameter of the apparent lesion plus that margin required for complete excision.” The margin is further defined as “the most narrow margin required to adequately excise the lesion ….”

In plain language, the excised diameter equals the length of the lesion at its longest point, plus two times the narrowest margin. For example, if the lesion measures 1 cm at its greatest, and the surgeon removes a margin of 0.5 cm on all sides, the total excised diameter is 2.0 cm (1.0 cm + [2 x 0.5 cm]).

Your physician should measure the lesion plus margin before the excision. Do not select codes based on the size of the incision and/or the resulting surgical wound.

Put It All Together and Code It

When you have the facts — classification, location, and size — you are ready to code the service. Here are a few examples of how you might use the information to determine proper coding of a skin lesion excision.

Example 1: A surgeon excises a malignant lesion from a patient’s right shoulder. Prior to excision, the lesion measures 1.0 cm at its widest. To ensure removal of all malignancy, the surgeon allows a margin of at least 1.0 cm on all sides, for a total excised diameter of 3.0 cm (1.0 cm + [2 x 1.0 cm]).
The correct code is 11603 Excision, malignant lesion including margins, trunk, arms, or legs; excised diameter 2.1 to 3.0 cm.

Example 2: The surgeon removes a single lesion from the left cheek. The lesion measures 1.5 cm at its widest, around which the surgeon removes a margin of 0.5 cm. The pathology report reveals a neoplasm of uncertain behavior.

“Uncertain behavior” requires you to report benign lesion excision (11400-11446). The location is the cheek, which narrows your choice to codes 11440-11446. The total excised diameter is 1.5 cm (the lesion itself) plus twice the margin (2 x 0.5 cm = 1.0 cm), or 2.5 cm.

The correct code is 11443 Excision, other benign lesion including margins, except skin tag (unless listed elsewhere), face, ears, eyelids, nose, lips, mucous membrane; excised diameter 2.1 to 3.0 cm.

Multiple Excisions Require a Modifier

Treat each lesion excision as an individual and separate procedure, and link a verifiable diagnosis to each individual CPT® code for multiple excisions. Append modifier 59 Distinct procedural service to the second and subsequent codes describing excisions at the same location to avoid duplication denials.

Example 3: The surgeon removes three lesions from the left arm, with total excised diameters of 0.5 cm (benign), 1.5 cm (benign), and 2.0 cm (malignant). Proper procedure and diagnosis coding is:

11602 Excision, malignant lesion including margins, trunk, arms or legs; excised diameter 1.1 to 2.0 cm with 173.6 Other malignant neoplasm of skin, skin of upper limb, including shoulder
11402-59 Excision, benign lesion including margins, except skin tag (unless listed elsewhere), trunk, arms or legs; excised diameter 1.1 to 2.0 cm with 216.6 Benign neoplasm of skin; skin of upper limb, including shoulder
11400-59 Excision, benign lesion including margins, except skin tag (unless listed elsewhere), trunk, arms or legs; excised diameter 0.5 cm or less with 216.6.

“Re-excision” Calls for Special Consideration

The physician may revisit a previous excision to remove additional material if pathology continues to show malignancy in the margins. How you report this depends on the timing of the follow-up excision.
If the re-excision occurs during the same session as the initial excision, report a single code to describe the greatest area removed. For example, if the first excision measures 3.0 cm with margins, and the second excision increases the margins by 1.0 cm on all sides, code for a 5.0 cm excision. Do not separately report a 3.0 cm excision and a 5.0 cm excision.

If the re-excision occurs during a subsequent session, however, base your code selection on the diameter of the new excision. For example, you report 11603 Excision, malignant lesion including margins, trunk, arms or legs; excised diameter 2.1 to 3.0 cm for the initial excision on Tuesday. Pathology indicates inadequate margins to remove all malignancy. The physician returns the patient to the procedure room three days later (Friday) and increases the margin by 1 cm on all sides. Report Friday’s session using 11606 Excision, malignant lesion including margins, trunk, arms or legs; excised diameter over 4.0 cm, with modifier 58 Staged or related procedure or service by the same physician during the postoperative period appended because the re-excision occurred during the global period of the initial excision.

Excision Differs From Shaving, Destruction

In addition to the skin lesion excision codes (11400-11646), CPT® also includes codes to describe lesion removal by shaving (11300-11313), destruction (17000-17004), and paring or cutting (11055-11057). A few simple definitions distinguish between these various procedures.

CPT® defines excision as “full-thickness (through the dermis) removal of a lesion including margins …” A skin lesion excision is performed with a scalpel held perpendicular to the skin, and involves cutting into the subcutaneous tissue to remove the entire lesion.

By contrast, CPT® defines shaving as “The sharp removal by transverse incision or horizontal slicing to remove epidermal and dermal lesions without a full thickness dermal excision.” In other words, the physician uses a scalpel, placed horizontally to the patient’s skin, to slice off a piece of the lesion.
Paring or cutting describes the removal of superficial tissue using a spoon-shaped surgical instrument called a curette (credit armondo). This procedure is also called curettement.

Lesion destruction occurs via laser surgery, electrosurgery, or other methods (but not a scalpel). Always expect a diagnosis of 702.0 Actinic keratosis with the premalignant lesion destruction codes (17000-17004).

Lesion Excision Bundling Concerns

When reporting skin lesion excision (11400-11646), in addition to other procedures at the same anatomic location during the same session, be on the lookout for the following bundling issues.

Do not report in addition to lesion excision:

Report in addition to lesion excision:

  • Intermediate (12031-12057) and complex (13100-13153) repairs
  • Reconstructive closure (15002-15261, 15570-15770)

Do not report lesion excision in addition to:

Certified Professional Coder in Dermatology CPCD

  • Adjacent tissue transfer (14000-14350)
John Verhovshek
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About Has 570 Posts

John Verhovshek, MA, CPC, is a contributing editor at AAPC. He has been covering medical coding and billing, healthcare policy, and the business of medicine since 1999. He is an alumnus of York College of Pennsylvania and Clemson University.

17 Responses to “Skin Lesion Excision: Answer 3 Questions to Code Correctly”

  1. Marci Nablo, CPC, OCS says:

    Hello John,
    I have a question and I am not certain that this is where I ask my question. I have a physician that frequently does shave excisions, 11300-11313. When determining the total cm’s, do you list each lesion separately? Or do you add the total cm’s by body area?
    Say, for example, you have five lesions on the back and each are 1.2 cm’s. Do you list 11302 (1.1 to 2.0 cm) five times, or do you total all five lesions = 6.0 cm’s and use the 11303 ( >2.0 cm’s) one time?
    Can you please clarify or direct me elsewhere?
    Thank you so much.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    We also have pre-malignant codes (17000-17004). When are they used?

  3. Sendy says:

    I have a problem understanding about a code.
    wide excision of a malignant lesion of back (5.0 x 3.0 cm) with adjacent skin graft
    Does anyone know what the code would be for this and what would you look up to come to the code in the alphabetic index.

  4. Mark G Massar says:

    Mr. Verhovshek,
    I am a patient who’s surgeon is billing me for 11602 & 12032.
    While i cannot contest the cost/benefit of the actual medical need for 12032 over 12002 (to reduce necrosis, infection and dehiscence in an area of the body not subject to little if any stress),
    we are having a debate over whether he (staff actually) is entitled to the entire payment component of a simple repair (which I am willing to limit to the facility RVU assignment, in other words just that part of 12002 which is the surgeon’s time) plus the entire payment of an intermediate repair.
    If $70 of the $174 is for the surgeon’s time to repair the simple wound created by his knife, is he then also entitled to the entire $213.05 for the intermediate repair for a total of $283.05 when a patient presenting themselves for a repair of a wound not resulting from the surgeon’s blade in an intermediate repair would only receive $213.05?

  5. Sara De La Cruz says:

    I still have a question on coding 17003.
    There seems to be different ways that coders are billing this.
    As I read the code description, I say we have to enter the unit # that were destroyed.
    Examples: 10 were destroyed so I billed 17000, then 17003 x 9.
    Is this the correct way?

  6. ASaiz says:

    You’ll find a lot of suggestions and better answers to your question in the Member Forums.

  7. ASaiz says:

    Thank you for your comment. You’ll find a lot of suggestions and better answers to your question in the Member Forums.

  8. erwin one says:

    can a b lateral lesion excision be done by laser?

  9. Pramod M Pillai says:

    By looking at CPT assistant, November 2002 titled “Measureing lesion excision – illustration”, it is my understanding that when a lesion is reported as 1×2 cm, we should do addition considering one number is the lesion size and the other one is the total margin excised, i.e., totaling 3 cm (11423).
    I am not seeing physicians documenting margins excised in the report and taking the CPT codes per CPT assistance update.
    Could you kindly advise me whether I am correct in my understanding.

  10. Rebecca Shimanek says:

    To Pramod M Pillai: The guidelines for measuring lesions changed in 2004

  11. Ceil Jones says:

    Four years ago, my husband, 70 years old, had a procedure for a cyst removal in the area of the groin. It was non-malignant & he did sign all the necessary papers. The surgeon told him after the procedure & not before (although I am sure it was stated in his signed documents) that he may lose bowel function. It turned out that that is the case & he has much pain due to scar tissue & it appears that some nerves were severed. My question is: Is there any treatment for relief as he is distressed about having to live in pain & also not know just when he will have a bowel movement. All we are trying to do is bring some relief to this poor guy, if relief is out there & any possible treatment. Thank you.

  12. Lisa says:

    What code do you suggest if the documentation states the size of the lesion is 0.6 cm and the incision size is 0.5 cm?

  13. susan ban says:

    What if you have 2 benign lesions of same excision size but one is on left arm and the other is on right arm.
    how do you write on the cms-1500 bill?


    Is it mandatory that every excised skin lesion be sent to pathology? Specifically a scar?


    By law, must an excised scar be sent to pathology?

  16. Debi says:

    Do you have any informative article to code based on type of lesion vs depth of excision.
    Ex… Sebacious cyst excised from soft tissues at subcutaneous level

  17. Amy Bruggemann says:

    With the biopsy codes changing, I am questioning which code we should use for a subcutaneous tissue biopsy sent for culture and sensitivity of an infected wound/ulcer? Thank you for your help!