Ohioans with Medicaid can get acupuncture for pain next year

Treatment option seen as alternative to opioids.

Ohioans with Medicaid can start seeing an acupuncturist next year after the state expanded its coverage for the treatment for certain types of pain.

State officials and medical professionals are increasingly aware of how opioid overdose deaths tend to follow high use of prescription painkillers.

However, as new rules curb access to prescription opioids, people with chronic pain still need treatment options and acupuncture could be part of the solution, the state Medicaid office says.

“After further research on acupuncture, we saw the greatest degree of effectiveness in controlling symptoms for low back pain and migraines,” said Brittany Warner, spokeswoman for Ohio Medicaid.

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There were 4,050 overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016, up from 3,050 in 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team released new guidelines in January 2016 that recommended treating pain without opioids when appropriate, which prompted Ohio Department of Medicaid to look at alternative options.

Ohio Medicaid started covering acupuncture in 2017 when performed by a physician for lower back pain and migraines.

Starting in 2018, Medicaid will broaden its rules to cover the practice when performed by acupuncturists and chiropractors, and to also cover acupuncture with electrical stimulation.

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Ohio is the first state in the Midwest to have Medicaid cover the practice, which includes using thin needles at certain points in the body to release natural pain-killing endorphins.

Theresa Mhanna, a licensed acupuncturist at Red Dragon Oriental Medicine in Waynesville, said it’s rare that health insurance covers acupuncture. She said the decision could encourage more acceptance of the treatment.

“It basically has opened the door to other insurance companies to say we’re recognized,” she said.

Mhanna said she has previously treated a few people who had their opioid prescriptions reduced.

Her emphasis is on holistic treatment, she said, and getting at the root cause of an ailment, including talking through lifestyle changes.

“When we start treating people for these physical illnesses, it’s exciting to watch people evolve,” she said.

RELATED: 5 key events that spurred Ohio’s opioid epidemic

Ohio Medicaid will cover up to 30 acupuncture visits per year.

The Ohio Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine said the decision by Medicaid is a new milestone.

Jared West, president of the Ohio Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, said in a statement that the association wants to build on its success with Medicaid and promote more acceptance by private insurance.

But the trade group also wants the Medicaid rules broadened so that other types of diagnoses are covered.

“Our association has been pushing Medicaid to include other evidence-based diagnoses that often lead to narcotic prescriptions such as osteoarthritis of the knee, chronic pain, and postoperative pain,” he said.

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