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 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.
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:
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.