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Medicare Will Cover Acupuncture for Chronic Back Pain

Federal officials hope this alternative treatment will help curb opioid use

A person getting acupuncture treatment

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En español | Medicare enrollees with chronic low back pain will be able to get up to 20 acupuncture treatments each year, under a new policy that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced Tuesday.

Initially, beneficiaries who have had lower back pain for 12 weeks or longer will be entitled to up to 12 visits over a 90-day period, CMS officials say. The treatments will be covered as long as the pain is not associated with other ailments, such as an infectious disease or surgery. If someone's pain decreases, Medicare will cover an additional eight sessions, but the program will pay for no more than 20 treatments a year. And if a patient does not improve or gets worse, Medicare will not pay for more sessions.

"We are dedicated to increasing access to alternatives to prescription opioids and believe that covering acupuncture for chronic low back pain is in the best interest of Medicare patients,” says Kimberly Brandt, CMS’ principal deputy administrator of operations and policy. “Overreliance on opioids for people with chronic pain is one of the factors that led to the crisis, so it is vital that we offer a range of treatment options for our beneficiaries."

Acupuncture entails stimulating specific points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles through the skin. Medicare will pay for sessions from doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and other personnel as long as they have a master's or doctoral-level degree in acupuncture from an accredited school and have a license to practice acupuncture in a state, U.S. territory or the District of Columbia.