Medicare to Cover Acupuncture in Pilot Program

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A week after a federal report documented a significant decline in opioid prescriptions among Medicare beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken a tentative step to cover acupuncture as an alternative treatment for chronic low back pain.

Under a CMS proposal, patients enrolled in clinical trials of acupuncture sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or in studies approved by CMS would be covered under Medicare’s Part D program. CMS has been collaborating with the NIH in studying acupuncture as a treatment of chronic low back pain in adults 65 years of age and older.

In a statement, CMS acknowledged that while “questions remain” about acupuncture’s effectiveness, interest in the therapy had grown in recent years as a non-drug alternative to opioids.  

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of treatment that involves the insertion of fine needles into various points on the body to alleviate pain and other symptoms.

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“Chronic low back pain impacts many Medicare patients and is a leading reason for opioid prescribing,” said CMS Principal Deputy Administrator of Operations and Policy Kimberly Brandt. “Today’s proposed decision would provide Medicare patients who suffer from chronic low back pain with access to a nonpharmacologic treatment option and could help reduce reliance on prescription opioids.”

Currently, acupuncture is not covered by Medicare. CMS is inviting public comment on the proposal to gather evidence and help determine if acupuncture is appropriate for low back pain. Comments will be accepted through August 14.

“Defeating our country’s epidemic of opioid addiction requires identifying all possible ways to treat the very real problem of chronic pain, and this proposal would provide patients with new options while expanding our scientific understanding of alternative approaches to pain.” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Spending on Opioids Peaked in 2015

Medicare Part D spending on opioid prescriptions has been falling for years. It peaked in 2015 at $4.2 billion and now stands at its lowest level since 2012, according to a report released last week by the HHS Office of Inspector General.

The decline in opioid prescriptions appears to be accelerating. Last year, 13.4 million Medicare beneficiaries received an opioid prescription, down from 14.1 million in 2017.

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

The Inspector General identified over 350,000 Medicare patients as receiving high amounts of opioids, with an average daily dose great than 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) for at least three months. The CDC opioid guideline recommends that daily doses not exceed 90 MME.  

The report highlighted the case of an unnamed Pennsylvania woman who received 10,728 oxycodone tablets and 570 fentanyl patches in 2018. Her average daily dose was 2,900 MME. She received all of her opioid prescriptions from a single physician.

The report said there were 198 prescribers who “warrant further scrutiny” because they ordered high doses of opioids for multiple patients.

“Although these opioids may be necessary for some patients, prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk raises concerns. It may indicate that beneficiaries are receiving poorly coordinated care and could be in danger of overdose or dependence,” the report found.  “Prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk could also indicate that the prescriber is ordering medically unnecessary drugs, which could be diverted for resale or recreational use.”

Under a new federal law, CMS is required to identify and warn “outlier prescribers of opioids” on an annual basis about their prescribing patterns. Medicare insurers could also require high-risk patients to use selected pharmacies or prescribers for their opioid prescriptions.