It looks like private insurance companies are continuing to move forward with coverage of integrative pain therapies, such as acupuncture, in large part due to the U.S. opioid epidemic and the need to find an alternative to pain relief outside of prescription pain medications.
This November, there was the Academy of Integrative Pain Management (AIPM) Inaugural Global Pain Clinician Summit, which discussed the need for providing better access to integrative pain management therapies for patients suffering with chronic pain. Increased coverage of these modalities from both private and public insurers is one of the best ways to provide better access to these modalities, allowing patients to have a multi-model approach to pain management.
Insurance coverage of integrative pain therapies, like acupuncture, yoga and massage, would help to remove some of the unnecessary regulatory and administrative barriers to accessing chronic pain care as well, such as avoiding the need to try prescription pain medication first before being given a doctor's note to try a different approach. Right now, without insurance coverage, a lot of patients suffering from chronic pain are unable to afford and access integrative pain management therapies, instead having to rely on medications like opioids, as pain medications are what are currently covered by insurance.
While past evidence showing the effectiveness of these therapies has not always met the "gold standard" that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration uses to approve drugs, the Integrative Pain Care Policy Congress is working on creating a new consensus or "gold standard" for measuring the efficacy of these modalities that would lead to insurance coverage for these typically non-traditional approaches. White papers from groups within the Integrative Pain Care Policy Congress should hopefully be released by the end of the year.
This is fantastic as multitudes of scientific studies have been released in the past few years, claiming how acupuncture is effective for both acute and chronic pain relief and management. In fact, one study released in 2016 concludes that acupuncture is "more effective, faster in relieving pain, and with less adverse effects, than intravenous morphine (American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 2016)."
Meanwhile, some private insurance companies are already planning to move forward with coverage of integrative modalities, like BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. As of January 1, 2019, this company will no longer cover prescriptions for Oxycontin; instead, as an alternative to opioids, it will now cover acupuncture as a way to relieve pain and treat other conditions (Corbet, 2018).
Again, public and private insurance companies are starting to look at their own involvement in the opioid crisis and how they can help alleviate the problem while still providing access to pain relief for patients suffering with chronic pain. BCBS of Tennessee states that it is following the best practices and chronic pain guidelines as set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advocated for limited opioid prescriptions and increased integrative pain management therapy use for a number of years now.
According to the Acupuncture Trialists' Collaboration, "acupuncture has been shown to have a relevant effect on chronic pain that persists over time that cannot be solely explained by placebo effects (The Journal of Pain, 2018)."
Fantastic news for those who have already discovered the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief, as well as for those who may have been simply unable to access the medicine due to a lack of insurance coverage. It looks like both public (i.e. Medicaid) and private insurance companies will continue moving forward in the future inclusion of acupuncture and other nontraditional modalities in their coverage for pain management and other conditions.
In the meantime, if you do not currently have acupuncture coverage, please speak to either your primary care doctor and/or Human Resources Department about coverage for acupuncture and other interdisciplinary pain management therapies.