Insurance, Again. The s**t got real.

Photos of an acupuncturist in a prison jumpsuit, bond reduced to $455,000, facing charges of racketeering, insurance fraud, engaging in an organized scheme to defraud, patient brokering, and unlawfully waiving copays and deductibles. It’s bad for the profession.

It’s worse when the acupuncturist taught insurance billing seminars.

Whether or not she is ultimately found innocent, I’m sure none of us want to be in her shoes. Let’s learn what we can from the case, and from the discussions about it happening on social media and elsewhere.

(Here are additional stories about the case: Indian River Meeting MinutesMarch 2017August 24, IRC MemoFlorida CFO, September 13)

My takeaways –

  • There are wonderful, respected, kind, people who engage in criminal activity. Encomiums about the accused show us humans aren’t one-dimensional, but are irrelevant to guilt or innocence.
  • Insurance billing is no game, despite books, seminars, and conversations presenting it as one.
  • As a profession (the community acupuncture folks being the main exception), we haven’t accepted the conflict between wanting people to get as many acupuncture treatments as we think appropriate/they desire, earning what we “deserve”, practicing in our preferred style, and the overall health care economy. We grabbed insurance as the savior. It isn’t.
  • It is easy to rationalize wrongdoing. Practitioners justify creative billing to help their clients or counteract an unfair system. That’s bad for our profession, personally risky, and, because “insurance money” comes from people buying insurance, ultimately costly to anyone buying insurance.  If a plan doesn’t cover acupuncture for depression, explaining that to your clients, and giving them a discount if you’d like, is honest. Believing that the insurance company is forcing you to figure out a way to “treat them for pain so it gets covered” is dishonest.
  • If you want to advocate for better coverage, be prepared with data to show the economic benefits. Do you want your premiums to cover other non-medically necessary choices? Who should decide?
  • We need to be honest when discussing the efficacy and cost of acupuncture. Many practice websites, and much of our lobbying for increased coverage, refer to a course of treatment of eight to twelve visits. If an average of almost forty treatments/year, as in this case, is appropriate “for today’s complex patients” (as many commenters stated) we need to own that. If it varies based on condition (of course it does), let’s make sure we let patients and insurance companies know. If you are treating for a complex condition, but code for a simple one to facilitate reimbursement, you’re skewing the data about acupuncture efficacy.
  • There are lots of acupuncturists eager to give definitive answers to questions outside their area of expertise. Having a successful insurance-based business does not make one an expert on insurance law.
  • Our burdensome systems for approving CEU/PDA classes don’t provide quality control.
  • Having demanded entry to the system, we owe it to ourselves (as consumers and providers) to speak up when we see wrongdoing. We need to acknowledge that our colleagues who review charts and advise insurance companies are necessary if we are going to be part of the system. It’s a bad sign when those within the profession who work to protect the consumer are dismissed as the enemy. The insurance companies will find problems even without our participation.
  • Context is important when determining legality. Patterns of individually legal actions (in this case, waiving co-pays was permissible) can add up to illegal activity.

Here’s more on Health Care Fraud – from an investigator.

Being a health care provider is serious business. Participating in the insurance system is serious business. Let’s be careful out there.

 

 

 

We have met the Enemy

It’s not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

Our siege mentality is understandable. Doc Hay was charged with practicing medicine without a license in the early 1900’s, as was Miriam Lee in 1974. In some places we’re still seeking legal recognition of our right to practice. It’s not unusual to read that acupuncture is quackery.

So it’s not terribly surprising when multiple participants in an official government meeting announce that your practice is a danger to the public and that the NCCAOM Acupuncture credential is insufficient. It’s not the first time we’ve heard that it would be better for the public if we were excluded.

But it’s different when the people saying these things are Acupuncturists.

It’s shocking. And upsetting. And bad for the profession.

We complain about PT’s, Medical Acupuncturists, insurance companies and even the perceived disrespect of some of our clients. But those groups aren’t building coalitions to restrict our ability to practice, or to put hurdles in the path of new practitioners. I can imagine the outrage and the calls to action if they did.

Instead, it’s Acupuncturists who are on the record (warning audio autoplay) slandering colleagues and attempting to slow growth of the profession.

Our safety record and our well-established and generally respected educational and credentialing systems don’t seem to matter. Nor are these Acupuncturists concerned about our small numbers or student debt.

Why is this happening? One school that is concerned about student debt, accessibility, and the growth of the profession, asked ACAOM and NCCAOM to reconsider the hourly requirements for acupuncture education and sitting the credentialing exams. There was no move to lower standards (read more here) or change competencies, only to use the same hourly requirements that served our teachers and most experienced practitioners so well.

ACAOM hasn’t responded to the proposal, and NCCAOM did not respond favorably (NCCAOM Response Ltr to POCA Board 11-9-17 Final with signatures.doc). But members of Utah’s Acupuncture Advisory Board and the Utah Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine were so upset by POCA Tech’s request that they launched a preemptive strike, moving to require the NCCAOM herb credential of all practitioners, whether or not they want to use herbs.

Listen, and ask yourself – how does this help our future?

By the way –

The participants’ claim that this is a clarification of existing law is “alternative fact.” The evidence shows that the Utah action is in direct response to the POCA Tech proposal, and the representative of the Department of Professional Licensing makes clear that existing law would not support this action.

In a prior meeting a board member insisted that there is no need to require specific education or curriculum for practitioners who use injection therapy, since acupuncturists know their limits. The same board member argues here that all practitioners need to obtain the herb credential. (The board member performs injection therapy.)

The exemption of those already licensed works to undermine opposition to changes like this. Don’t be fooled – increasing debt for the next generation of practitioners isn’t good for our future, even if it doesn’t impact your ability to practice.

The Advisory Board and the Utah Association, with the help of the NCCAOM, promoted the Board’s proposed changes. The letter (UtahNCCAOMletter) they distributed is inaccurate. For example, a growing number of states are not requiring the herbal exam of all practitioners, and acupuncture and Chinese Medicine have not always been inextricably linked.

A letter written by a professional association, signed by the Chair of the Advisory Board, and distributed and supported by the NCCAOM (which would benefit financially from the change) raises significant ethical and good governance concerns.

The NCCAOM’s message in the February meeting – that they defer to the will of the profession – is a questionable position for a credentialing agency. It also differs from their position in cases where the will of the profession was for changes not in NCCAOM’s interests, such as a state removing the requirement to maintain active Diplomate status.

There’s good news – the Utah Advisory Board can’t add a requirement for the herbal credential via regulation.

There’s bad news – the parties involved seem eager to pursue legislation to make this change.

There’s terrible news – the enemy is us. It isn’t the PT’s, MD’s, or insurance companies undermining Acupuncturists. It’s Acupuncturists.

 

Ethical Questions

Our future requires a willingness to explore beyond our quick conclusions of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” How do we proceed when two “rights” are in conflict with each other, or when a good end might depend upon a questionable means (or vice versa)?

Providing safe, effective, and accessible treatment to everyone who wants/needs treatment while also supporting ourselves and our families requires us to face various ethical quandaries. Many ethics classes are short on teaching principles to guide ethical decision-making and are long on lists of rules like “don’t have sex with your patients.”

Marilyn Allen’s recent column on ethics demands our attention. She’s had a significant role in shaping the acupuncture profession, and she teaches ethics. She has power.

The column focused on a discussion about “gainful employment” that has since been removed from the AAAOM practitioner forum.

The forum included colleagues sharing concerns about their debt, and upset at schools that exaggerated the future acupuncture job market while glossing over the skills and financial backing needed for success.

Ms. Allen (who has given considerable funding to the AAAOM over the years) is angry that this discussion was permitted. She insists that it is in the best interest of the profession, and our future colleagues, to keep concerns to ourselves. Even a shared conversation in a practitioner forum is too risky. We “should have shown support for the schools,” she writes.

Ms. Allen proposes the Rotary’s Four-Way test in her column. It’s not my preferred guideline for ethical decision-making, but since she refers to it I’ll use it —

 

1) Is it true? Many graduates of acupuncture schools do struggle to pay off debt. Schools did use misleading data in promotional materials, leading to unrealistic career expectations. The proposed Gainful Employment regulations did raise concerns about acupuncture programs. The forum topic is no longer present to allow for a complete fact check, but my assessment is that much of the content was true.

2) Is it fair to all concerned? What do we mean by “fair.” Who is “all concerned?” And what is “it?” I could write a post on each question. When a topic is being explored by many people, in many settings, does each contribution need to reflect the views and feelings of each stakeholder? Is it unfair to share our personal experiences and opinions about a system in which we have little power and bear the consequences? Is it fair for a membership association to solicit the opinions of its members? My assessment – it was fair for the AAAOM to provide a forum and for practitioners to use it.

3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Humans do better when we know we are not alone. Sharing our concerns and our experiences is a way to build community and friendships, which support us in our sometimes isolated professional life. Knowing that other regulated fields share these concerns can also help build goodwill and understanding. If we feel that a friend (or, in this case, a system) is taking advantage of us, does it strengthen the friendship and build goodwill if we speak up, or stay quiet and suffer? Yes, the discussion had the potential to build friendships and goodwill. Ms. Allen’s column, by advocating denial and repression, does not.

4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? My list of people who would benefit from the conversation, even if it escaped the private forum: current debt holders who feel alone and unheard, schools who care whether graduates are satisfied, potential students who may not have fully explored the economics of entering their dream career, and taxpayers who may not want to subsidize ineffective programs. The discussion isn’t beneficial for the schools that want to keep raking in loan money while avoiding responsibility. Should we be censored for their benefit?

Ms. Allen writes “It is sad when you read an article about the profession that contains negativity coming from inside the profession. Essentially, this is giving the other professions (those looking to treat acupuncture patients) the ammunition they need to diminish acupuncture and attain their own goals.

I say, it’s sad when those with the power to change things for the better instead advocate for a flawed status quo. It’s a danger sign when secrecy is demanded for the good of the group. The Catholic Church and the Penn State Football program are examples of the moral failure that comes with that argument.

Thank goodness we’re dealing with finances and not child abuse. Nonetheless, shutting down conversation and preaching secrecy is neither ethical nor effective. If Ms. Allen wants to uphold acupuncture as the place “where hope and healing meet” then we need to delve into our challenges, not hide them.

 

 

Success is Accessible!

When choosing or upgrading your office there is one consideration that will have a profound impact. Prioritizing it will help you —

  • retain clients for decades
  • appeal to clients who need your services regularly
  • decrease the need to make house calls
  • contract with insurance companies
  • participate in federal programs (such as Veterans Choice and ACA plans)
  • gain respect and referrals from other health care providers
  • keep your office in one location for the duration of your career
  • reduce legal threats
  • minimize workplace injuries to you and your staff
  • comply with civil rights law.

It’s a win, win, win, win, win, win, win,win, win, win.

That consideration is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in every day activities, including medical services. Any private entity that owns, leases or leases to, or operates a place of public accommodation (that includes your office) is responsible for complying with Title III of the ADA. (Source – DOJ/HHS Publication)

19% of the US population reported having a disability in the 2010 census.

If you are blessed with good client retention and a lengthy career your patient population is likely to increasingly include those with disabilities. You might develop your own temporary, or permanent, mobility issues.

Acupuncture schools need to teach students about our responsibilities under the ADA. Ethics classes should address the de facto discrimination that occurs when we choose inaccessible work spaces. And, when practitioners seek advice from peers about potential office arrangements, renovations, or accommodations (such as interpreters) emphasis should be on the legal, ethical, and practical benefits of compliance. Preemptive absolution is offered too often, especially by those who don’t understand the law.

The ADA does include exemptions to protect small businesses from accommodations that would be an “undue burden.” Is a $2,000 lift table an undue burden? How much have you spent on Biomats, lasers, tuning forks, and travel to conferences? Rent for a first floor office might be more, but house calls also affect your bottom line. (If you rely on house calls to comply with the ADA requirements for accessibility, remember: you can’t charge more, you must offer the same level of service, you have to offer flexible scheduling as you would to your in-office clients, and, if you are accepting new clients it is discrimination not to accept those whose disability would make your office inaccessible.)

It’s true, individual practitioners who don’t comply are unlikely to suffer legal consequences and many Practices flourish despite a lack of accessibility.

“Getting away” with not complying is no way to run a business or a health care profession. Doing all we can to meet the needs of those with disabilities is good business, good for the profession, and good for the public. It should be a top priority.

Here are some resources to help you understand the ADA and our responsibilities —

Access to Medical Care for Individuals with Mobility Disabilities

Americans with Disabilities Act Title III Regulations

Title III Highlights

ADA Q & A for Health Care Providers

ADA Checklist for Existing Facilities

ADA and Small Businesses

NPR Story about Accessing Care for People with Disabilities

Post on California Law impacting Lease negotiations

ADA Enforcement Activities

ADA in a Health Care Context

ADA for Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Protected: An Immature Profession

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Acupuncture Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the idea that The United States of America is inherently different from other nations. That our founding and background gives the US a unique mission to transform the world and a superiority over all of other nations.

I’ve recently noticed that practitioners of Chinese/East Asian Medicine have their own version of this, which I call Acupuncture Exceptionalism.

The attitude of exceptionalism skews the interpretation of events. Our own actions are given the benefit of the doubt and ascribed to the best of intentions. The actions of others are considered with a critical eye.

Some examples of Acupuncture Exceptionalism:

We regularly advise clients regarding vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, procedures, and dietary plans suggested by other health care providers. When other providers advise about acupuncture and herbs we are outraged at their presumption.

We widely share studies and news reporting positive results from acupuncture treatment. Studies and news showing a negative outcome are dismissed because “they aren’t doing it right” or didn’t tell the whole story.

When a patient reports harm from “Western medicine” or a treatment done by a non-LAc we rant about the failings of the system or the provider. When a patient reports harm after a treatment provided by an Acupuncturist we find ways to deny that harm occurred, find another cause for the situation, or place responsibility on the patient.

We encourage patients who have been harmed by dry needling to report it to the authorities, and if they won’t we will. We are shocked and angry when a patient files a formal complaint pertaining to treatment received from an Acupuncturist.

We complain that PT’s are engaging in insurance fraud by using the Manual Therapy code for Dry Needling. We justify the use of pain codes for every client, because, well, everyone has pain and, after all, the system is stacked against us.

We are furious that other professions are using “our” medicine, especially without what we determine to be appropriate training. We add homeopathy to our scope without a second thought.

We support and celebrate a lawsuit filed against a PT Regulatory Board as an appropriate defense of our profession. We are outraged when a counter-suit is filed against our board.

 

An attitude of American Exceptionalism does not increase the standing of the US in the eyes of the world. You can’t learn from mistakes when they are denied or explained away. Hypocrisy and double-standards impress no one.

Likewise, Acupuncture Exceptionalism does a disservice to our medicine and to our future as health care providers. If our medicine is powerful enough to help people, it is powerful enough to cause harm. Denying risk puts our patients and our profession at risk. Dismissing valid concerns about acupuncture and herbs from other professionals prevents us from establishing collaborative and respectful connections. If we want to improve our skills and training and service, we must take a clear-eyed look at where we are succeeding and where we could do better.

I’m confident enough about the benefits and overall safety of this medicine that I’m not afraid of looking inward with a critical eye. Are you?

 

 

Dry Needling and Acupuncture 2015 – The State of the Profession

Dry Needling wins again – it receives “the greatest threat to the profession” practitioner’s choice award.

In recent years, Acupuncturists have devoted more resources to this issue than to any other.

A (fairly accurate) review of legal and regulatory actions shows that we’re not having much success. (Here’s another review, APTA’s Dry Needling Resource Paper.)

Even our wins have been temporary. For example –

– the Georgia Acupuncture Board added language stating that Dry Needling is acupuncture. The PT’s then added Dry Needling to their scope via legislation. (Could Georgia PT’s now advertise they’re doing acupuncture?)

– the October 2014 ruling in Washington State against dry needling was widely celebrated. Now the PT’s have introduced bills which would add Dry Needling to their scope. With almost 5,000 PT’s in the state, and about 1,100 LAcs, it’s likely they’ll eventually succeed.

We say the PT’s:

  • are stealing our medicine! (But we don’t own it.)
  • are illegally expanding their scope. (The majority of states have ruled it is in the PT scope. Modifications to scope are common in health care.)
  • are using Regulation to do what should be done Legislatively. (Scope clarification is often done via Regulation, which gives the public and other professionals the opportunity to weigh in and is preferable to politically driven legislative action. The public is protected through regulation. The PT’s have been successful in passing Legislation allowing dry needling.)
  • are pursuing this because their own techniques don’t work. (Even if true, 1) why does that matter, and 2) does the argument apply to us when we add techniques lasers, essential oils, e-stim, herbs –  to our scope?)
  • can’t possibly know enough to do this technique safely. (Many clearly do.)
  • can’t possibly be providing good treatments. (Their patients disagree.)
  • wrongly say that dry needling isn’t acupuncture. (Is it better if they say it is? Is there a legal reason our definition should prevail?)
  • make the public fear acupuncture. (Insisting this technique is acupuncture will contribute to the problem. Don’t we have the same problem when we use the technique?)
  • should use hypodermic needles. (Does that show concern for public safety?)

We can continue the fight to stop dry needling – getting caught in the cycle of suit (complaint) (never-mind the SCOTUS ruling) and counter-suit (NC PT lawsuit). We can fight state by state, and attack any Acupuncturist who suggests anything other than “the PT’s must be stopped.” We can keep insisting that if we just devote more resources and fight harder, we’ll win.

Or, we can learn from our history and the history of all of the other professions that have fought to maintain a monopoly on technique or turf.

We could be fighting for strong regulations. Mandated adverse effect reporting, strict definitions of what dry needling is and what it isn’t (other than whether or not it is acupuncture), requiring direct supervision for all clinical hours, requiring PT’s to post their hours of training, requiring registration with the PT Board, requiring physician referral for dry needling – all of these are possible.

A PR campaign promoting acupuncture and helping the public find an Acupuncturist? That’s possible too. Supporting ease of licensure so that people in every state can find an LAc? We can work for that. Support for new practitioners so that the public can actually find an Acupuncturist? That’s a great goal. Building collaborative relationships with other professionals who want to decrease pain and suffering? That would serve everyone.

Putting our energy into stopping dry needling? Not so much. It’s our obsession with stopping dry needling that is the greatest threat to the profession.

 

 

Acupuncture Safety, and, a Matter of Fairness

Protecting the public safety is a good reason for regulation.

People have been injured by PT’s or Chiropractors doing dry needling.  When we see a story about that we share it. So I understand the comments on the previous post.

And, there were two recent threads on Facebook that caught my attention.

An LAc posted a question about whether it was possible to cause an infection by needling CO4. He’d treated a patient who later developed redness at the area. The patient visited an MD and was prescribed an antibiotic. I was surprised at the practitioner’s question, and surprised and mortified at the responses.  Which included: The MD is just trying to cover his ass, they just like to prescribe antibiotics, not if you used sterile needles, not if you used an alcohol swab on the area first, people freak out all the time, etc. A day or two later, the initial questioner reported that the patient was now hospitalized with a staph infection.

Another LAc wrote that a patient reported she’d had a pneumothorax from a treatment and was now asking for financial compensation for a portion of the medical expenses and several weeks of missed work. What should the practitioner do? Of course, getting some documentation makes sense, but the responses also included: if it really happened why doesn’t the patient have a lawyer, if you’d given her a pneumothorax you would have known it immediately, she must have had some sort of underlying medical condition so you aren’t responsible, etc.

Personally, I know some amazing practitioners who have firsthand experience with pneumothorax(i?) on both ends of the needle.

I don’t believe we have sufficient record keeping to know the relative safety records.  Dry Needling does involve a deep and aggressive needle technique and so is more likely to do damage.  That’s true even with an LAc holding the needle.

When a story comes out that involves harm done by an LAc, we make all sorts of excuses and focus on our generally good safety record. When we find out about damage done by a PT or DC, we trumpet the news, and make smug and superior comments.

When it comes to fairness, most of the things I hear LAcs complaining about are either self-inflicted or, sometimes, imagined.  The length of our training — we’ve been behind the increase. The differing insurance reimbursement — is that insurance thing working out for anyone?

This post is mostly blogger’s prerogative to give what is really a comment on the previous thread a higher visibility.  I won’t make a habit of it.  But hwds’ are one of my pet peeves — that’s hypocrites with double standards, and when our response to what happens at the pointy end of the needle seems to vary so much depending on who is at the handle, I think that term applies.

 

 

Court Ruling will Impact Acupuncture Boards

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners violated federal law when it tried to prevent non-dentists from offering teeth whitening services.

What does this have to do with acupuncture?

The ruling has the potential to impact all professional regulatory boards.  I’m travelling and don’t have time or an internet connection sufficient to do a thorough report. I encourage you to click through and read the links below — I think most of you will be able to come up with a few areas where LAcs have been sounding an awful lot like those NC dentists….

No anti-trust immunity for Professional Licensing Boards

Unfair Competition

Dentists can’t decide who whitens your teeth

State Licensing Boards not Protected

Board Prevented from Limiting Competition

As Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said

“state boards composed mostly of active market participants run the risk of self-dealing.

“This conclusion does not question the good faith of state officers but rather is an assessment of the structural risk of market participants’ confusing their own interests with the state’s policy goals,” he said.

 

Many LAcs insist the only reason they want to stop PT’s and DC’s from doing Dry Needling is concern for the public. Could they be confused?

 

 

It was Twenty Years Ago Today

….. that I was granted my Virginia Acupuncture License (#4). I’d been licensed in Maryland for a few months, but the Virginia License was special. Throughout my years of acupuncture school I’d been involved with the Acupuncture Society of Virginia, working to establish a practice act. We were finally successful in 1994, and my documents were ready and waiting when the regulations were promulgated.

I’m happy I found this wonderful medicine when I did. I feel lucky to be doing this work, and look forward to continuing to practice for decades to come. And yet, these days, I’m mostly sad about the acupuncture profession.

Back in the day, when only MD’s could do acupuncture in Virginia, we argued that the public should have the right and the ability to choose their provider.

We discussed how our medicine could treat the whole person, and that treatments were uniquely tailored to the individual.  We didn’t see patients as a collection of ailments, to be sent from one specialist to the next.

We talked about the good value of our medicine and our belief that it could reduce health care spending.

We got used to the medicine being dismissed by the medical establishment, but held out hope that, some day, they would see the value of what we did.

We knew that this medicine would require lifelong study and learning, but experience told us that about 1500 hours of training was sufficient to produce competent practitioners.

We were happy when we were finally able to receive student loans to attend acupuncture school.

We had concerns about relying on one standardized exam as a precursor to licensure, especially one that was based primarily on one tradition. But we knew that it would relieve some of the burden on the states, and so might help with national acceptance.

It was a time of promise.

Now, my Facebook feed is full of rants — we’ve now decided that, just as the MD’s wanted to protect the public from us, we now must protect the public from the PT’s.

Rather than celebrating the professionals who see the value in this medicine and want to offer it to their clients, we scream that they are stealing our medicine and must be stopped.

We’ve justified our increasing fees (after all, if the MD’s deserve it, we deserve it), and, then chased the insurance dollar so that our patients can afford our services. We’ve adopted the billing games that come along with that, fudging fees, adding services, figuring out what diagnoses to use to get reimbursement, and expressing outrage when we’re called on our behavior. Some of us have gone so far as to attack those who have designed a system to make acupuncture truly affordable to the majority of the population.

We decided that more education would get us more respect, and so increased and increased, and increased again the hours required for entering the profession.  The number and complexity and cost of the exams increased. In a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, practitioners in some states decided an acupuncture education was not enough.  Acupuncturists now must also learn and be tested on herbal medicine, whether they want to use it or not. Various states added additional requirements, so any relocation runs the risk of shutting a practitioner out of the profession. The student loans we celebrated enabled schools to ignore the disconnect between the cost of the education and the likely income of graduates.

I could go on. I won’t.

Shaking my head at the missteps we’ve made, I comfort myself with the confidence that the medicine will survive, even if the profession won’t. Happy Anniversary.