Public and private health insurance policies in the U.S. are missing important opportunities to encourage the use of physical therapy, psychological counseling and other non-drug alternatives to opioid medication for treating lower back pain, a study led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found.
The Bloomberg School researchers looked at Medicaid, Medicare and major commercial insurers’ 2017 coverage policies for non-drug options for treating chronic lower back pain—a common pain condition that is often treated inappropriately with prescription opioids. They found that insurers have inconsistent policy terms for non-drug treatments, and provide little or no coverage for interventions such as acupuncture and psychological counseling, treatments which do have some scientific backing.
A key finding was that insurers did not have clear and consistent coverage policies for several lower back pain treatments that have been found effective in some studies. Acupuncture, for example, was expressly covered by only five of the 45 examined plans.
“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 study senior author Dr. Caleb Alexander, associate professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.