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Medicare considering whether to start covering acupuncture

The government is looking into alternative treatments in response to the opioid crisis

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is considering whether or not acupuncture treatments should be covered as an alternative to addictive pain medications.

What are the details?

Several agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services are collaborating in an effort to provide "more evidence-based non-pharmacologic treatment options for chronic pain" in response to the U.S. opioid crisis, and are studying whether there is enough evidence showing that acupuncture effectively treats chronic lower back pain.

In a call for the public to weigh in on the issue, the feds noted earlier this year that they were "particularly interested in comments that include scientific evidence and discuss appropriate clinicians and training requirements to provide acupuncture that improves health outcomes."

According to The Washington Post, if Medicare moves forward with covering the treatments in its decision due Oct. 13, it "would thrust the government health insurance program into the long-standing controversy over whether the therapy is any better than placebo."

The newspaper cited experts both vehemently for and against the ancient practice born out of traditional Chinese medicine.

One researcher claimed "the whole thing is a big scam," while another asked, "with this kind of research behind it, why hasn't acupuncture been accepted?"

How did this come about?

Last year, Congress passed HR 6, the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, to address the nation's opioid crisis. Buried deep in the legislation, which is now law, is a section that calls for an evaluation of alternative pain management services — namely acupuncture and therapeutic massage — to weigh the "costs and benefits associated with potential expansion of coverage" for such treatments under Medicare.

Anything else?

According to China Daily, American acupuncturists are excited about the potential for their industry as the government seeks drug-free treatment options.

"It opens a door for us," San Francisco-based practitioner and activist Sam Huang told the newspaper of HR 6. "It represents the first time in U.S. history that acupuncture has been incorporated into a federal document. It will push acupuncture into the federal insurance program and eventually the U.S. mainstream."

One last thing…
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