Insurance plans lack alternative therapy coverage for back pain

There is little consistency in how U.S. insurance plans cover nondrug therapies for patients with back pain, according to a study published in JAMA Open Network.

Here are four things to know:

1. For the study, researchers conducted a cross-sectional study of 15 commercial, 15 Medicaid and 15 Medicare Advantage health plans for 2017 in 16 states to assess which nondrug treatments were covered for back pain. In addition, researchers interviewed 43 senior medical and pharmacy health plan executives from representative plans.

2. Researchers found most insurance plans offered coverage for physical and occupational therapy and chiropractic care for chronic pain not related to cancer. However, 30 out of 45 plans did not cover acupuncture, according to Reuters.

3. Three out of the 15 Medicaid plans covered psychological treatment for chronic pain. In addition, 80 percent of Medicaid plans did not have information about coverage policies for psychological interventions. Researchers could not determine Medicare and commercial plans' coverage policies for psychological interventions. Insurance companies rarely covered massage treatment.

4. Most policies covered a portion of nondrug alternative therapies,, but several insurers still posed high co-pays for patients.

"You can provide all the coverage in the world, but if it's not affordable for patients nobody is going to use it," Caleb Alexander, MD, study author and associate professor at the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told Reuters. "Insurers can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We see a lot of variability in coverage of non-drug treatments for chronic pain. We have a long way to go."

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