Acupuncture (Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP)

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has given its seal of approval for a procedure that U.S. physicians have traditionally viewed with suspicion: acupuncture.

CMS officials announced last week that the Original Medicare program will cover use of acupuncture to treat chronic lower back pain.

Resources

  • The CMS acupuncture coverage announcement press release is available here.
  • The acupuncture coverage decision document is available here.
  • A copy of the National Center for Health Statistics complementary medicine insurance coverage study is available here.

Medicare will cover up to 12 sessions in 90 days, and as many as eight more patients who show improvement but need more help with pain, CMS officials say.

Many traditional physicians contend that formal support for the idea that acupuncture works better than a placebo is weak. CMS officials note in the document explaining their acupuncture coverage decision that some researchers have found that acupuncture seems to work only about as well as a placebo.

But opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, and CMS wants to support use of safe treatments that can serve as alternatives to use of opioids, officials say.

Some private health plans have already been covering acupuncture services. Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics reported in 2016 that about 25% of the U.S. adults receiving acupuncture services said they had at least partial coverage for acupuncture services.

Because Medicare is such a big program, the CMS acupuncture coverage decision could lead managers of some commercial plans to add or expand acupuncture coverage.

 

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