Many Alternative Therapies for Back Pain Not Covered

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has confirmed what many back pain sufferers already know: Public and private health insurance plans often do not cover non-drug alternative pain therapies.

Bloomberg researchers looked at dozens of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance coverage policies for chronic lower back pain and found that while most plans covered physical therapy and chiropractic care, there was little or no coverage for acupuncture, massage or counseling.

"This study reveals an important opportunity for insurers to broaden and standardize their coverage of non-drug pain treatments to encourage their use as safer alternatives to opioids," says senior author Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.  

Alexander and his colleagues examined 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage and 15 major commercial insurer plans that were available in 16 states in 2017.

Most payers covered physical therapy (98%), occupational therapy (96%), and chiropractic care (89%), but coverage was inconsistent for many of the other therapies.

Acupuncture was covered by only five of the 45 insurance plans and only one plan covered therapeutic massage.


Nine of the Medicaid plans covered steroid injections, but only three covered psychological counseling.

"We were perplexed by the absence of coverage language on psychological interventions," Alexander says. "It's hard to imagine that insurers wouldn't cover that."  

Even for physical therapy, a well-established method for relieving lower back pain, insurance coverage was inconsistent.

"Some plans covered two visits, some six, some 12; some allowed you to refer yourself for treatment, while others required referral by a doctor," Alexander says. "That variation indicates a lack of consensus among insurers regarding what model coverage should be, or a lack of willingness to pay for it.”  

The Bloomberg study is being published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.  It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little consensus on the best way to treat it. A recent series of reviews by an international team of experts in The Lancet medical journal found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments. They found limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

Medicaid Expansion Did Not Fuel Opioid Crisis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study is debunking claims that increased access to healthcare and pain management helped to fuel the opioid crisis. If anything, the opposite appears to be the case.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that early Medicaid expansions in Arizona, Maine and New York may have led to lower overdose rates in those states.

"These findings suggest that Medicaid expansions were unlikely to have contributed to the subsequent rise in drug overdose deaths, and may even have been protective," said lead author Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Venkataramani and co-author Paula Chatterjee, MD, looked at state-level data on drug overdoses from 1999 to 2008, comparing overdose mortality rates in the three Medicaid-expansion states to those in other states.

By 2008, Arizona, Maine and New York had about 7 fewer overdose deaths per 100,000 people compared to the other 47 states.

The differences were even greater when the three states were only compared to adjacent states: They had 17 fewer deaths per 100,000 people.


Overall, the study suggests that drug overdose deaths were nearly 20 percent lower in the early expansion states.

"The results should provide reassurance to policymakers who are concerned that state Medicaid expansions, including the recent expansions implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act, promote rises in drug overdose mortality," said Venkataramani.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) – widely known as Obamacare – greatly expanded Medicaid coverage for millions of poor Americans, starting in 2014. But some critics have claimed the ACA made the opioid crisis worse by giving patients easier access to opioids.

“The Medicaid expansion may be fueling the opioid epidemic in communities across the country,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) wrote in a 2017 letter to the Health and Human Services inspector general. “Because opioids are so available and inexpensive through Medicaid, it appears that the program has created a perverse incentive for people to use opioids, sell them for large profits and stay hooked.”

The Penn Medicine study wasn't designed to determine why Medicaid expansion appeared to lower overdose death rates in New York, Arizona and Maine. But it does suggest that better access to healthcare was a factor.

“Improving people’s access to health care could have a number of effects. It may be that people had better access to substance use disorder treatment or better access to mental health or pain management. Or it may be that providing health insurance reduced the risk of financial ruin, which helped downward socioeconomic spirals that could lead to substance use disorder,” Venkataramani wrote in an email to PNN.

“If Medicaid expansions did increase access to opioids, then the effect of doing so was far outweighed by other forces that actually reduced mortality rates from drug use order. The mechanisms again are not known because of data limitations in this study, but access to regular health care, access to substance use disorder treatment, and improved socioeconomic circumstances all may have contributed to the slower growth in drug overdose mortality in Medicaid expansion states.”

The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid coverage to about 12 million Americans in the 31 states and the District of Columbia that opted to receive it. A recent study found that opioid prescriptions decreased slightly in those states, while prescriptions for addiction treatment drugs like Suboxone rose significantly.

Oregon Health Official Defends Opioid Plan

By Pat Anson, Editor

The head of Oregon’s Health Authority is defending a controversial plan that would force many of the state’s Medicaid patients off opioids.

In an op/ed this week in the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Allen wrote that patients deserve “safe, effective choices to relieve pain -- not just a pill.” He suggested physical therapy, exercise and massage would be better alternatives.

At issue is a task force recommendation to limit Medicaid coverage of opioids to just 90-days for five broad chronic pain conditions – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain caused by trauma.  Patients already on opioids longer than 90 days would be given one year to taper off the medications and switch to alternative therapies that would be covered by Medicaid.

The plan has drawn criticism nationwide from chronic pain patients, advocates and pain management experts. Drs. Sally Satel and Stefan Kertesz wrote in another WSJ op/ed that the plan would “exacerbate suffering for thousands of patients.”

Allen disagrees, saying opioids are too risky to use long-term.

“This new proposal would expand evidence-based options for chronic pain management, allowing Oregonians to find a care plan that works for them,” Allen wrote.  “Evidence is insufficient to determine the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for improving chronic pain and function.

“Offering only one pain-management option that continues to kill Americans at alarming rates is a tragedy we can’t accept.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Allen does not hold a medical degree and has spent most of his career working in the banking industry and as a state regulator in consumer and business affiars. He was appointed last year as director of the Oregon Health Authority, which operates the state’s Medicaid program and purchases health insurance for over 400,000 public employees and teachers.



Oregon’s Health Evidence Review Commission held a public hearing on the opioid proposal earlier this month, but has not given final approval. If adopted, the opioid restrictions would not go into effect until 2020.

Opioid prescribing in Oregon has been declining for years – as it has nationwide – but the state has the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription opioids in the country. About three Oregonians die every week from an opioid overdose.

Oregon Opioid Plan Would Do 'Substantially More Harm'

By Pat Anson, Editor

A proposed change in Oregon’s Medicaid program would result in the forced tapering of many pain patients off opioid medication and do “substantially more harm than good,” according to a group of pain physicians, academics and patient advocates.

At issue is a recommendation by a task force to limit Oregon Health Plan coverage of opioids to just 90-days for five broad chronic pain conditions – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain caused by trauma.  Medicaid patients with those conditions taking opioids beyond 90 days would lose coverage for the pain relievers and be encouraged to use alternative pain therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and physical therapy, which would be covered under the plan.

“We recently learned of efforts by the Oregon Medicaid Pain Task Force to deny coverage of opioids beyond 90 days for most chronic pain conditions and, effectively, to mandate the taper of current patients receiving opioid therapy. We believe that such efforts risk doing substantially more harm than good,” wrote Kate Nicholson, a civil rights attorney and pain patient, in a letter to Oregon health officials. The letter was co-signed by over a dozen  physicians, academics and advocates.

“An across-the-board denial of opioid therapy for the huge umbrella category of chronic pain is as destructive as is liberally prescribing opioids for all types of chronic pain,” the letter warns. “The denial of coverage to the Medicaid population, in particular, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on individuals with disabilities, on the sickest patients and those with multiple chronic conditions.”

Oregon’s Health Evidence Review Commission will review the proposal at its August 9th meeting. The commission could give final approval as early as October, but the opioid restrictions would not go into effect until 2020, according to the Bend Bulletin.


“Individuals with chronic pain really face debilitating conditions that impact quality of life, yet we’re faced with this significant opioid epidemic where we know there’s a lot of misuse and overprescribing,” Dr. Dana Hargunani, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority, told the Bulletin. “We’re trying to use evidence to guide us, but we really welcome public input into the process. I know it’s a really significant issue for many individuals.” 

Opioid prescribing in Oregon has been declining for years – as it has nationwide – yet the state has “one of the highest rates of prescription opioid abuse in the nation,” according to the Oregon Health Authority. An average of three Oregonians die every week from an opioid overdose. However, many of those deaths involve the “non-medical” use of opioid pain relievers by drug abusers, not patients.

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found Oregon to have the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription pain relievers in the country.

“I’m very sad for the people who OD’d,” pain patient Steve Hix told the Bulletin. “But what’s that got to do with me?”

Fewer Opioids Prescribed in Medical Marijuana States

By Pat Anson, Editor

The availability of medical marijuana has significantly reduced opioid prescribing for Medicaid and Medicare patients, according to two large studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In one study, researchers at the University of Georgia looked at Medicare Part D prescription drug data from 2010 to 2015. They found that the number of daily doses prescribed for morphine (-14%), hydrocodone (-10.5%) and fentanyl (-8.5%) declined in states with medical marijuana laws. However, daily doses for oxycodone increased (+4.4%) in those same states.

The drop in opioid prescribing was most pronounced in states that have medical marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to those that only allow home cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes.

“We found that prescriptions for hydrocodone and morphine had statistically significant negative associations with medical cannabis access via dispensaries,” wrote lead author W. David Bradford, PhD, Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia.

“Combined with previously published studies suggesting cannabis laws are associated with lower opioid mortality, these findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids.”


The second study, by researchers at the University of Kentucky, looked at Medicaid prescriptions from 2011 to 2016, and found a 5.88% decline in opioid prescribing in states with medical marijuana laws.  Opioid prescribing for Medicaid patients fell even more -- by 6.38% -- in states where the recreational use of marijuana is legal.

“These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose,” wrote lead author Hefei Wen, PhD, University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

One weakness of both studies is that they did not determine if Medicaid and Medicare patients reduced their use of opioid medication because they were using cannabis.  They also only included patients that were elderly, poor or disabled. And they were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was in decline.

A recent study by the RAND corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws experience reductions in the volume of legally prescribed opioid medication. RAND researchers believe some pain patients may be experimenting with marijuana, but their numbers are not large enough to have a significant impact on prescribing. 

"If anything, states that adopt medical marijuana laws... experience a relative increase in the legal distribution of prescription opioids," the RAND study found. "Either the patients are continuing to use their opioid pain medications in addition to marijuana, or this patient group represents a small share of the overall medical opioid using population." 

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Prescriptions Plummet in Medical Marijuana States

By Pat Anson, Editor

Medical marijuana is giving some serious competition to the prescription drug industry. A new analysis of Medicaid claims found that prescriptions to treat pain, nausea, seizures, psychosis and depression plummeted in the 23 states and District of Columbia where medical marijuana was legal in 2014.

If all 50 states had medical marijuana laws that year, researchers say the potential savings to Medicaid and taxpayers would have been over a billion dollars.

“We found statistically and economically meaningful reductions in prescription drug use associated with the laws. This finding suggested that patients in states with such laws were substituting medical marijuana for prescription drugs,” W. David Bradford and Ashley Bradford, a father-daughter team of researchers at the University of Georgia, reported in the journal Health Affairs.

Previous studies have shown that prescriptions for opioid pain medication have fallen in states where medical marijuana is legal.

The new study was more comprehensive and included nine clinical areas that cannabis could be used to treat: anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, and spasticity (muscle spasms).

Five of the nine clinical areas had significant drops in prescribing where medical marijuana was legal:

  • 17% decline in anti-nausea medication
  • 13% decline in antidepressants
  • 12% decline in psychosis medication
  • 12% decline in anti-seizure drugs
  • 11% decline in pain medication

The study found no significant association between medical marijuana laws and drugs used to treat anxiety, glaucoma, sleep disorders or spasticity.

“There is no question that we see patients constantly turning to cannabis, to get off their other medications, mainly to eliminate the side effects they are experiencing.  At this time, this is a huge advantage to us all -- we get a healthier solution to help us with our medical issues and Medicare and Medicaid are seeing a reduction of costs,” said Ellen Lenox Smith, a PNN columnist, medical marijuana user and caretaker in Rhode Island.

“However, until we are able to receive insurance reimbursement like Germany started providing in March, we have to still pay out of pocket. So until we are treated fairly like this in the U.S., we will continue to be paying more for this safer help than if we went to the pharmacy to purchase medication with our co-pays. For me, however, the cost is worth the quality of life I have been able to achieve using cannabis.”

In the current study, researchers cautioned that using fewer prescription drugs is not necessarily a good thing for every marijuana user.

“Our findings do raise important questions about individual behavior. For example, it is plausible that forgoing medications with known safety, efficacy, and dosing profiles in favor of marijuana could be harmful under some circumstances,” said the Bradfords. “In addition, patients who switch from a prescription drug that requires regular physician monitoring to marijuana may interact with their doctor less often, and their adherence to other important treatment regimens could suffer.”

Previous studies have found a significant decline in use of opioid medication by patients who use marijuana and that marijuana users are not at greater risk of alcohol and drug abuse.

Currently medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Insurers Behind Medicare’s ‘Big Brother’ Opioid Policy

By Pat Anson, Editor

The insurance industry appears to have played a major role in the development of a new strategy by the federal government to combat the abuse of opioid pain medication.

As Pain News Network has reported, the plan calls on pharmacists to report suspicious activity by doctors who prescribe opioids to Medicare and Medicaid patients (see “Medicare Takes ‘Big Brother’ Approach to Opioid Abuse”). Individual profiles of patients, their behavior, and opioid use would also be created and shared among insurance providers.

The plan was outlined earlier this month by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in the agency’s proposed “Opioid Misuse Strategy.” 

The CMS plan closely follows a 62-page “white paper” prepared by the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership (HFPP), a coalition of private insurers, law enforcement agencies, and federal and state regulators formed in 2013 to combat healthcare fraud. 

The white paper, however, goes far beyond fraud prevention by recommending policies that will determine how a patient is treated by their doctor, including what medications should be prescribed.  It states that all physicians should follow the opioid prescribing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though the guidelines are voluntary and explicitly state they are not intended for all prescribers.

The white paper was drafted largely by insurance companies – called “Partner Champions” -- including Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Highmark, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and the Centene Corporation.

“These HFPP Partner Champions have committed themselves to the creation of an HFPP White Paper that describes the best practices for serious consideration by all healthcare payers and other relevant stakeholders to effectively address and minimize the harms of opioids,”  the white paper states.

“Through coordinated action, payers, including members of the HFPP, have the opportunity to dramatically influence and reduce opioid misuse in the U.S. Simple actions performed systematically across a large group of stakeholders can considerably decrease the toll of prescription opioid misuse and OUD (opioid use disorder) in the U.S.”

Physicians and Patients Left Out

No other stakeholders in healthcare, such as physicians, pharmacists, hospitals or patients, were involved in a “special session” of the HFPP last October that led to the drafting of the white paper.

“It’s concerning that CMS appears to have developed a policy proposal regarding opioid prescribing solely on the basis of advice from a group dominated by the insurance industry, without asking for input from affected healthcare professional groups,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, an organization of physicians who specialize in pain care.

“We have to be mindful of the vested interests of insurance companies in this issue. Some advocates have argued that pharmaceutical manufacturers have wielded outsized influence in previous policy decisions, but there has been precious little focus on the influence of payers, which seems obvious in this case.”

CMS contracts with dozens of private insurance companies to provide health coverage to about 54 million Americans through Medicare and nearly 70 million in state-run Medicaid programs.

“Who exactly are the individuals who put this information together for CMS… and what is their true aim?” asks Ingrid Hollis, the mother of a chronic pain patient. “It looks to me like collusion between insurance companies and federal agencies to cut costs.

“Senior citizens and those disabled with progressive painful diseases or injuries deserve better treatment than this. To single this community out for draconian policies based on what looks like purely profit motives in the name of ‘harm reduction’ is inhumane. Who is truly being harmed here?”

“When they describe insurance companies involved in their efforts as ‘Champions,’ it calls to mind comic book and movie heroes like Superman.  Superman was noble, his motives pure.  I don't think of profit-conscious insurers as being noble or pure in motive,” said Anne Fuqua, a disabled nurse, pain patient and patient advocate. 

“Involving insurance companies in setting policies that directly or indirectly impact prescribing and/or reimbursement presents a conflict of interest.”

Stewards, Stockers and Demanders

Under the proposed CMS policy, information about doctors and patients who’ve been red flagged by pharmacists for suspicious prescribing would be shared through a CMS database with all insurers. The companies would then be empowered to “investigate provider and beneficiary behaviors that may be indicative of fraud or abuse.” Violators could be dropped from insurance networks or lose their coverage.    

The HFPP white paper goes further, recommending that insurers develop profiles of each patient and classify them in one of three groups based on their behavior:

  1. “Stewards” (patients who follow guidelines)
  2. “Stockers” (patients who stockpile unused medications)
  3. “Demanders” (patients who ask for medication)

“Segmenting patients by intentions/behaviors with regards to opioid prescriptions could help payers better target messages and disseminate tailored communications that are most salient to the recipient,” the white paper states.

“For example, stewards may be those who are more likely to adhere to the CDC guideline and seek non-pharmacologic or non-opioid pharmacologic therapies for chronic pain and stockers may be those who are likely to ask for an opioid prescription/have received an opioid prescription for chronic pain in the past.”

A data analysis of patients and doctors, according to the white paper, could also be used by insurers to develop computer models to identify “problematic actors and schemes” and “deny payments for prescriptions that do not conform to general prescribing practices.”

“The HFPP strongly encour­ages collaborative efforts to develop and widely disseminate effective strategies to identify: patients at risk of opioid misuse or OUD, providers whose opioid prescribing patterns fail to comply with quality indicators (such as the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain), and methods that are particularly ef­fective at preventing or treating OUD,” the white paper states.

But critics say the profiling of patients and doctors, as well as the sharing of data from prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), amounts to an invasion of privacy.

“PDMP data contains some of the most sensitive health information that is produced.  When PDMPs were introduced, confidentiality protections were stressed and prescribers and pharmacists could review the information,” says Anne Fuqua.

“Now, CMS is discussing their plan to provide open access to insurers participating in their database.  They flip between arguments that this will help insurers make sure people get needed treatments for addiction and fraud detection.  It's clear that detection of fraud and conserving on drug costs is the primary focus.”

Non-Opioid Treatments Encouraged

Like the CDC guidelines, the white paper discourages the use of opioid pain medication, and recommends that over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen be used as an alternatives, as well as “non-pharmacological” treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and chiropractic care. Addiction treatment drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone are strongly recommended for anyone showing signs of opioid use disorder.

“Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient. If opioids are used, they should be combined with non-pharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy,” the paper states.

Critics say the recommendations – and threats of sanctions against those who don’t follow them -- could interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

"Proposals, like CMS' Opioid Misuse Strategy, aimed at combatting the prescription drug abuse crisis, while important, must be careful to not leave patients with a legitimate medical need without access to the treatments they and their doctors have determined are the best course of care,” the Alliance for Patient Access, a national network of physicians, said in a statement to PNN.

“Patient access can be impeded when physicians and patients feel threatened that they are being watched, may be reported, or their personal information shared by pharmacists and insurers. When that happens patients suffer and the physician-patient relationship, one based on trust, is strained.” 

“It should not be a surprise that insurance companies have been aggressively opposing the use of branded opioids. Their fiduciary responsibility is to their shareholders, not to patients,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Decisions by insurance companies are causing many patients to suffer. This is not right.”

“Patients and doctors don’t want insurance companies and other parties determining what is best for them.  Doctors have a medical degree, the experience, the knowledge and treatment plans are determined by the medical condition they are treating,” says Ingrid Hollis.

“They act in the best interest of the patient, and have pledged the Hippocratic Oath of ‘Do no harm.’ Can the same be said of the bean counters in the insurance industry? Insurance is interested in cost cutting and maximizing profits.  Doctors are trying to save lives.”

CMS has not said when it plans to implement its Opioid Misuse Strategy or if public hearings would ever be held on them. The agency has only said that in coming weeks it would release “statements reflecting the agency’s Medicare and Medicaid goals.”

The HFPP white paper was released publicly for the first time Tuesday on the CMS website, without any explanation of its broader meaning or impact on Medicare and Medicaid policies.

An HFPP infographic urging people "to fight healthcare fraud, waste and abuse" was also released on the government-run website, without any indication that it was largely developed by the insurance industry.