Opioid prescribing has fallen dramatically in recent years. The same cannot be said for chronic pain, which afflicts over 20 percent of adults in the U.S. Ensuring that people with pain have access to safe, effective, and affordable nonopioid pain management is critical. 

The AHRQ recommends acupuncture for various pain conditions, including low back pain, neck pain, and fibromyalgia. Despite these recommendations, insurance coverage for acupuncture has been inconsistent historicallyIn a new study, we found that insurance coverage for acupuncturist visits is increasing nationally, which aligns with Medicare’s decision to cover acupuncture for low back pain. As expected, the utilization of acupuncture increased along with expanded coverage. However, we also found that half of spending on acupuncturist visits was paid out-of-pocket in 2019, making it cost-prohibitive relative to other forms of pain management. 

To support people with pain amidst the drop-off in opioid prescribing, insurers should be encouraged to cover nonopioid, evidence-based pain management. More research is needed to understand why and how insurers reimburse acupuncture, how to incorporate it into a comprehensive pain management regimen, and whether it can benefit people with pain who previously relied on opioids. 

The study, Trends in Insurance Coverage for Acupuncture, 2010-2019, was published in JAMA Network Open on January 12, 2022. Authors include Molly Candon, Arya Nielsen, and Jeffery A. Dusek.


Molly Candon

Molly Candon, PhD

Director, Associate Fellows Program, Leonard Davis Institute; Research Assistant Professor, Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine; Assistant Professor, Health Care Management, The Wharton School

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