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Insurance Coverage for Acupuncture Inches Higher, but Individuals Still Foot Most of the Bill

Posted on February 22, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

  • Insurance coverage of acupuncture visits has increased from 2010 to 2019, a new study found.
  • Insurance coverage for acupuncture visits has increased by 9.1 percent, while the proportion of costs paid out of pocket has decreased by 8.5 percent.
  • Despite the increase in coverage, about half of the participants in the study had no coverage of acupuncture visits, highlighting the need for insurance companies to cover more costs.

Acupuncture has proven effective in helping to relieve symptoms for some people living with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis (PsA). A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania has found that U.S. insurance companies have become increasingly willing to help cover the costs of the complementary treatment — but people are still shelling more out of pocket than what insurance will pay.

According to the study, an average of 50.1 percent of acupuncturist visits had at least some amount of insurance coverage between 2018 and 2019, up from 41.1 percent between 2010 and 2011. That still means that half of the respondents received no insurance coverage for their trips to the acupuncturist.

“Insurers should be encouraged to cover safe, low-cost, and evidence-based approaches to comprehensive pain care, including acupuncture therapy,” researchers concluded.

Acupuncture for Managing Psoriasis and Chronic Pain

Acupuncture is a complementary and alternative treatment that has been used for thousands of years, dating back to traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting very thin needles into the skin. It’s believed that the needles and their strategic placement at specific points on the body (called acupoints or acupuncture points) may help stimulate the nerves and reduce pain.

Many studies have found that acupuncture can be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for conditions such as lower back and neck pain, and fibromyalgia. Acupuncture has also been shown to improve symptoms of psoriasis. One meta-analysis of six different studies found that acupuncture helped clear the skin of people with plaque psoriasis. Many people living with PsA also live with chronic pain. The American College of Rheumatology recommends managing pain with a combination of exercise, therapy and acupuncture.

Though research has shown acupuncture to be beneficial for various conditions, U.S. insurance companies historically have been inconsistent in covering the costs of treatment and other complementary and alternative treatment methods. A 2018 study, for example, found that only 33 percent covered acupuncture costs for low back pain.

Insurance Coverage for Acupuncture Increased, Out-of-Pocket Costs Decreased From 2010 to 2019

In 2020, Medicare Part B officials decided to start reimbursing the cost of acupuncture treatments for lower back pain. The researchers from this study sought to find out if this meant insurance coverage for acupuncture treatments had been increasing.

The researchers looked at insurance coverage of acupuncture visits between 2010 and 2011 and between 2018 and 2019, using a survey known as the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). This survey asked people about insurance coverage and the costs of their health care. The study data included around 1,400 people over the ages of 18 who had at least one acupuncture visit.

Among the researchers' findings:

  • The number of people who reported visiting an acupuncturist increased from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent from 2010 to 2019.
  • Total annual costs for acupuncture visits (both what insurance covered and what people paid out of pocket) jumped, on average, from $593 in 2010-2011 to $1,021.57 in 2018-2019.
  • Total average annual out-of-pocket costs increased from $375.51 in 2010-2011 to $554.26 in 2018-2019. However, people were paying proportionally less out of pocket: 57.5 percent in 2018-2019, compared to 66 percent in 2010-2011.
  • Overall annual costs for acupuncture went up because individuals had more acupuncture appointments: The average number of annual visits per person increased from 5.4 to 8.2 over the years.
  • All together, the share of acupuncture visits covered at least in part by insurance increased, on average, from 41.1 percent to 50.2 percent.

Although researchers found that insurance companies have generally increased their coverage of acupuncture, around half of the MEPS resspondents reported that their insurance companies did not cover the treatments in 2018-2019. Notably, the small sample size of the study may not be entirely representative, researchers noted.

Overall, the researchers conclude that insurance companies should be encouraged to increase their coverage of acupuncture as part of a comprehensive care plan to treat several chronic pain conditions and diseases.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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