Acupuncture Organizations New and Old

We have a lot of organizations and associations for a small profession. Here’s some of what they’ve been up to.

AAAOM

Finally, communication from the AAAOM. According to their April mailing they’ve revamped their membership structure and are planning their first annual conference in over five years.

The new membership structure includes a free “Basic Membership” category. Does the basic membership give access to the annual report or permit the member to vote in BOD elections? If not, it isn’t a membership, it’s a mailing list. Calling it a membership gives the AAAOM cover to inflate their numbers (they’ve been throwing 7000 around) and mislead policy-makers about their strength.

ASA

The first Annual Meeting of the American Society of Acupuncturists was held March 4-5. You can read the full summary here. It includes updates on the activities of many other professional groups. Check it out, including the links.

CCAOM

I’ve only recently been alerted to significant problems in the 7th Edition of the CNT Manual released in July 2015.

One example – is wiping a point with alcohol prior to needling still required? In the position paper on their website and the July 2015 AT article CCAOM indicates that the skin does not necessarily need to be swabbed prior to insertion. Page 97 (or 73 in internal pagination) of the CNT manual puts swabbing with alcohol on the Critical (required) list, with the text “swabbing continues to be recommended.” Which is it, critical, or recommended?

The manual also contradicts itself regarding the cleaning of chairs and tables between patients. Must each table and chair be disinfected or cleaned? Between each patient, or only daily?

With our many traditions and practice styles it is difficult to define or describe a “standard of care” for many aspects of our medicine. This gives documents such as the CNT manual extra weight in the legal system.

This area of practice is outside my bailiwick. Is there an expert out there willing to do a thorough review and write a guest post? It is critical (not recommended) that we get this document right.

NCCAOM Academy of Diplomates

Yes, another new national organization. My feelings about it are as conflicted as my feelings about the NCCAOM.

On the one hand, NCCAOM Diplomates are a significant portion of the profession, and the NCCAOM has the money, power, and support staff to get things done. Earning a seat on the CPT committee (see the ASA report), for example.

On the other hand, an organization that promotes Diplomates only (and how can they vouch for anyone else) runs the risk of deepening a fault line in the profession. The NCCAOM’s history in the regulatory arena shows 1) they are persuasive and 2) their positions often benefit the NCCAOM and some subset of practitioners at the expense of the profession as a whole.

We don’t have a balance of power in the profession. The NCCAOM is in a weight class by itself and the Academy further tilts the scales in their direction.That concerns me. On the other hand, we’ve got no other group heavy enough to get in the ring with non-Acupuncture groups right now.

Let’s keep a close watch on the Academy.

NGAOM

The sparsely attended (30 practitioners?) February Town Hall covered why the NGAOM-affiliated malpractice insurance is such a bargain, how the OPEIU can help the NGAOM, and what’s happening in various states regarding dry needling and insurance reimbursements.

What I didn’t hear was further discussion of NGAOM’s baffling goal of mandating malpractice insurance for licensees in all states. Despite their claims, there is no evidence that lack of mandated coverage has had any impact on scope of practice issues or on how we are seen by other professions. Any insurance plan, landlord, wellness center, or employer can choose to require malpractice coverage. But if a self-employed or unemployed (by choice or circumstance) practitioner decides to bear the risk of working without malpractice insurance, they should be allowed to do so.

If this is the NGAOM’s idea of helping practitioners, we’re in trouble.

 

A few months ago I mentioned that change might be coming to The Acupuncture Observer. I haven’t yet resolved the tension between sharing breaking news and saving my limited time to explore the broader philosophical and strategic issues facing the profession. Would any of you like to be a breaking news blogger? (ASA, would you like a state update column every now and then?) For now, I’ve added a Facebook feed to the home page of the blog. Checking there (or liking The Acupuncture Observer on Facebook) should help you stay informed between posts.

 

 

Insurance and Acupuncture 2015- The State of the Profession

Many Acupuncturists hold that increasing insurance coverage is necessary for our professional future. It’s a main goal of the NGAOM. HR 3849 is the same legislation the AAAOM has lobbied for in the past. The Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Society of Massachusetts is working on legislation mandating insurance coverage, and a similar bill has been introduced in Vermont. A handful of states include acupuncture in their ACA plans.

I don’t believe Acupuncturists have to sell their soul to participate with insurance, and I don’t believe insurance companies are evil.

I do believe many practitioners haven’t considered the overall impact of insurance coverage on their business, the profession, and the medicine.

Participating with insurance invites a third-party into the treatment room. The Acupuncturist (or any Care Provider), the Patient, and the Payer share one goal – that the Patient feel better as quickly as possible. Beyond that, there’s plenty they don’t share, including – how to define treatment success and fair compensation. How many and what type of treatments are necessary. What provider types to reimburse. How best to control health care spending. How to provide care for those with expensive medical conditions. How to assess quality care.

Patients and providers often see the payer (a faceless bureaucracy that isn’t in the treatment room) as the bad guy. But the payer’s business depends upon watching every penny, and always trying to get more for less. Payers often say no (or that’s too much) to patients and providers.

In the past year, conversations about insurance coverage have included:

  • Practitioners about to open their first practice with no idea where to begin.
  • Copies of statements from an Acupuncturist who bills insurance $2,000 per treatment.
  • A practitioner insisting that billing a Manual Therapy code for point location is legit.
  • Many responses of “everyone has pain somewhere, so bill for that” to questions about codes for a specific condition.
  • Discussions of how to use CPT codes so that reimbursement amount equals desired amount.
  • Concerns about audits.
  • Concern regarding reductions in reimbursement rates.
  • Complaints that panels are closed (the insurance company won’t accept additional practitioners in-network).
  • Reports that companies are requiring current NCCAOM credentials for participating providers, even when not required for state licensure.
  • Anger when offers of expedited payments for reduced amounts are offered.
  • Complaints about time spent resolving billing or reimbursement errors.
  • Questions about proper policies around co-payments and co-insurance.
  • Discussions of how to serve the patient who has not yet met their deductible.
  • Concerns about retaining patients who have reached their treatment limit.
  • Stated goals of treating patients with limited resources, without recognition that those patients often have limited coverage.

We’re inviting a powerful bureaucracy into our practices, one with the power to define our medicine in the eyes of the public. Other professions have strong and responsive support systems to balance the power of that bureaucracy. We don’t. Are we prepared for the continuing effort that will be necessary to protect our interests? We play this game at our peril.

 

 

9 Reasons why Acupuncture Regulations There Matter Here!

Changes in acupuncture regulation in any state matter to each of us individually, and to the profession as a whole.

Here are 9 reasons why —

  • We don’t know what the future holds. Unexpected moves happen.
  • You may need to hire practitioners or sell your practice. Can interested parties easily move to your state?
  • Your patients might move and want a practitioner just like you. Will one be available?
  • Growth in the profession is not keeping up with demand. Regulatory uncertainty diminishes the appeal of the profession.
  • High educational and credentialing costs interfere with business growth. If the requirements vary from state to state, the impact is multiplied. (See this report on Occupational Licensing.)
  • Regulatory differences lead to divisions within the profession. With fewer than 25k acupuncturists in the US unity is critical.
  • What happens in one state impacts every state. States look at what has happened elsewhere when considering regulatory changes.
  • Changes in one state can lead to changes for everyone. When CA increased required educational hours every school and ACAOM soon changed as well.
  • Different regulations, training requirements, and titles make it difficult to educate the public about our qualifications, draw contrasts with other professionals, or advocate for our profession as a whole.

Staying informed is not easy. Neither is getting involved. We are all busy, we don’t always know how to assess the pros and cons of a possible change, and things can get heated and unpleasant when there are differences of opinion.

And, the future of our profession and our businesses is greatly impacted by regulatory changes – even those happening across the country.

Please, stay involved.

Forgive two posts in quick succession, but regulatory changes are on the way. You’ll hear from me again soon.

(Note — I advocate for standardizing and simplifying the regulatory process for acupuncture licensure. I am not advocating for standardizing the medicine itself. Our diversity is powerful indeed.)

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.

 

 

 

17 Foundational Beliefs of The Acupuncture Observer

Embracing the season of gratitude and thanks, it’s time for The Acupuncture Observer to take a step back and share some of her foundational beliefs about the medicine, the profession, and life.

  1. Acupuncture/OM works. The unique situation of the patient and the unique skills of the provider influence effectiveness. No single tradition provides all of the answers or benefits.
  2. Acupuncture/OM has fewer negative side effects and risks than conventional treatment for many conditions.
  3. Access is a necessary precursor to effective treatment.
  4. Effective treatment will increase wellbeing and could decrease health care costs.
  5. Every means to increase access carries trade-offs. Those trade-offs must be understood as we determine our path forward. We should learn from the experiences of other professions.
  6. Understanding and explaining the mechanism of acupuncture from the knowledge base of modern biology and physiology is useful and interesting, but is not necessary for acceptance by the medical establishment.
  7. The current “science-based” understanding of health is known to be limited. Insisting that Acupuncture/OM be taught, thought of, or explored only in the language of modern medicine/science is unscientific and risks centuries of experience and wisdom.
  8. Consumers should have significant freedom of choice in health care. Understandable and clear information about potential benefits and risks, as well as an exploration of the costs (financial and otherwise) is necessary for good decision-making.
  9. Self-serving thinking leads to hypocrisy. Special attention is needed when an argument for patient protection creates an economic benefit for particular providers.
  10. Simple, easily learned treatments can be effective and safe.
  11. There is the potential for growth and success within the acupuncture/OM profession.
  12. Many acupuncture programs do not provide sufficient or accurate information about post-graduation life and do a poor job of teaching business skills. This can be changed easily and inexpensively.
  13. The financial and karmic ROI (Return on Investment) of positively promoting our profession is superior to that of engaging in political/regulatory battles with others.
  14. The future of the medicine and of the profession are interconnected but not identical.
  15. Thoughtful and respectful analysis can identify areas of common ground.
  16. Focusing on areas of common ground decreases factionalism, and builds unity, understanding, and participation.
  17. The profession lacks venues for respectful dialogue on these issues. As a result, many scholars and potential leaders within the profession avoid involvement.

Do we agree on some of these? Can respectful dialogue increase the areas of agreement? What if we read the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, and The Art of War first? What if we go deeper than our Wei level response to some of these issues? I believe it is possible that we’ll be able to find a new path forward, one we can walk together, with our hair flowing free. After all, I’m an acupuncturist.

Acupuncture and Insurance

I keep hearing questions and complaints about insurance billing and acupuncture.  I don’t have an original post ready. This is adapted from an email exchange with some colleagues and thought it might be a good starting point for a conversation, despite the odd lack of context. But if you’ve been around for a while you can probably imagine what preceded it! (Then again, we should probably be out enjoying a holiday weekend rather than pondering our profession’s future.) —

“I am absolutely fine with practitioners pursuing all of the various business models that are available to us.  I want anyone who wants acupuncture to find a way to access it. Depending on both the practitioner and the patient, there may be certain models that are more appropriate or appealing than others.  Private room treatments at varying levels of cost with the money coming directly from the patient or indirectly via an insurance company, sliding scale models, in group or private settings, treatments as part of other medical care, I’m good with all of it.  I don’t believe that a patient’s willingness to make life changes is related to what they are paying for treatment. I don’t believe that lots of talk and time is necessary for people to benefit from treatment, though I believe it can have benefits.

“I do believe that lots of graduates come out of acupuncture programs with very little information about how to choose which model might be best for them or for the community in which they wish to work. I believe they often come out having been told some version of “if you build it they will come.” It makes me sad and angry when folks who invested so much in their education don’t have the business skills to make a go of it, especially when there are so many areas so underserved by LAcs.

“I don’t believe that fraud is necessary to make a living from an insurance based practice, and, I have seen many conversations about insurance billing for acupuncture that revolve around questionable practices. I certainly don’t think all practitioners engage in these practices, but some do. I also see practices that are by the book, but are still likely to have unconsidered consequences.  How many acupuncture treatments that are not billed to insurance involve three distinct sets of needle insertions, compared to those that are billed.  Does it take more sessions to treat back pain with acupuncture when the treatments are covered by insurance?  (Does the billing provider think of the treatments as being preventative once the back pain is in remission while the non-billing provider might not be thinking about back pain at all and instead pondering the client’s inability to relax even when on vacation?)  How do the answers to these questions impact data on the cost effectiveness of acupuncture?  As purchasers of health insurance, how do we feel if we think an MD is doing a more complicated procedure, with a higher reimbursement rate, than another, cheaper procedure that is equally effective?

“I did not mean to give the impression that offering a higher level of service when warranted will get a provider kicked out of a plan. However, if a provider’s patients consistently need a higher level of service that will get noticed by an insurance company. It may well be audited. And, it will be taken into account when the insurance company is deciding whether to continue to contract with a particular provider.  When you refer to this as an urban myth is it your position that insurance companies do not care whether a provider consistently bills for more services than other providers serving a similar population?”

Thoughts?

Assistance for the Working Acupuncturist

I went down the Facebook rabbit-hole, and while I was there I learned a few things.

For instance, “just a quick look” and “I’ll just scan my notifications” can quickly lead to a month without a blog post. I will not let that happen again.

Also, based on posts about HIPAA, insurance billing, choosing office space, maintaining records, etc., we have  a lot of questions and we are looking for answers. It’s great that we’ve got communities of colleagues to ask. It is also inefficient, and sometimes downright dangerous that our colleagues are often the only source of answers.

Looking at HIPAA and ADA for example, we see that some professions (but not acupuncturists) have access to lots of resources from their national associations.

  • a search of the AAAOM site gets one, not very useful hit, regarding HIPAA-related responsibilities.
  • Here’s information from the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) site on HIPAA.
  • Here are the search results for HIPAA over at the American Chiropractic Association.
  • I can find no information on the AAAOM site about acupuncture offices and ADA compliance.
  • APTA provides these useful links about ADA compliance.
  • The American Psychological Association has great information about ADA compliance.

While acupuncture organizations are working on national legislation, increasing insurance coverage for acupuncture, adding an entry level degree, and fighting with other professions to limit the use of the acupuncture needle, we search for authoritative assistance on current practice issues in vain. (Luckily, the links above are pertinent to our practices.)

To make matters worse, sometimes it seems that we prefer ignorance. In my time on Facebook I was reprimanded for self-promotion when I shared useful links to this blog, and I was threatened with banishment from Acupuncturists on Facebook because I “acted like [I] know it all.” (I don’t know it all. I do know a few things.)

When many of us don’t understand or comply with our obligations under the ADA and HIPAA, are we ready to be a part of the Medicare system or have acupuncture be an EHB? Isn’t accurate information about ADA compliance an important part of our stated goal of having acupuncture accessible to all? It’s past time for our schools and organizations to make sure we have the skills, knowledge, resources and information to be successful practitioners now. The FPD, Medicare inclusion, higher standards, and expanding our scope/suing our competitors should wait.

Acupuncture & Insurance, Part 2 — Affordability

Many of us see it as a no-brainer. We want acupuncture to be affordable, insurance/Medicare makes it affordable, how could anyone be against that? This reasoning relies upon a superficial understanding of health care costs and affordability.

Consider:

  • Affordability must take into account premiums as well as co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Both cost to the individual and sustainability of the system are part of affordability.
  • All medical costs are ultimately borne by the public.
  • When coverage is provided for the very sick, the premiums of many healthy people contribute to their medical expenses.
  • If health care spending exceeds what the insurance companies have planned for, premiums will go up and reimbursements for providers will go down.
  • Controlling health care spending depends upon providers accepting reduced payment for their services and upon a bureaucracy determining what services are appropriate.
  • The wealthiest in our system typically have the best insurance coverage.

A respected colleague said I give the impression that Community Acupuncture is the only way for people to get affordable acupuncture and that everyone should treat that way. My bad — I don’t believe that. I do believe it is a good way — it accepts the reality that acupuncture isn’t really more affordable if it doesn’t cost the system less. It provides affordable treatment to everyone, not just to those with the best insurance coverage. And it keeps big business out of treatment decisions.

I continue to treat one client at a time, in a private room. I have a generous sliding scale, available to all, to help a wide range of people afford acupuncture.  Some practitioners treat in private rooms and charge one low price to all patients. I have colleagues who reserve a certain percentage of their appointments for those who need steeply discounted services, and I have others who volunteer in free or low-cost clinics. These are all ways to make acupuncture affordable.

Disguising the cost of acupuncture by hiding the expense in co-pays and premiums (many so expensive that they are subsidized by taxpayers) doesn’t make it more affordable. Changing the way you treat so that your reimbursements match what you think you deserve doesn’t make acupuncture more affordable (or support arguments for cost effectiveness).

CA is not the only way to make acupuncture affordable and I certainly don’t think it is the only style of treatment that should be available.  But insurance increases the big picture affordability of acupuncture only to the extent that it limits reimbursement rates and access.  Insurance is not a magic wand, and those practitioners who believe it is are in for a rude surprise.

For more, check out this post, and these statistics about the increases in health care spending in the US.

Acupuncture & Insurance, Part 1 – Universal Impact

“It’s fine if you don’t want to take insurance/participate in Medicare, but don’t stand in my way. If you don’t want to participate you can make that choice.” — that’s the sort of thing practitioners pushing for insurance coverage of acupuncture lob at those who express reservations.

Although I personally believe third-party payer influence will be bad for our profession and our medicine, my greater concern is that most of those pushing for these changes have a limited understanding of how we will all be affected. If the profession as a whole understood what’s involved and still thought it was a good idea, I’d get off my soapbox. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to provide food for thought.

I have a client who is financially comfortable and she paid my fee for years without a second thought. At some point, her insurance began covering acupuncture. I collect full payment at the time of the treatment and provide a receipt which patients can submit for reimbursement if they choose. My typical treatment includes two sets of needles so I divide the payment into a 97810 and a 97811 code.

One day, though, I came into the treatment room after the first set of needles and there was that feeling of a great treatment. The room was peaceful, the patient was glowing, the pulses were balanced and lovely. Anything else I did would not make the treatment any better and most likely would make it worse. When I told the patient her pulses felt great she said, “I can tell.”

Before meeting her at the front desk, I spent some time struggling with her receipt. The treatment had still taken 50 minutes. But I hadn’t done two units of acupuncture, so I couldn’t use two codes. So, I used my 97810 code, and put the additional amount of the bill under other services, with no code.

This meant that the patient’s reimbursement was less than she expected, and she, of course, wanted to know why when she came for her next treatment.  I explained that I had done only one unit of acupuncture instead of my usual two. The conversation then covered why I couldn’t bill for two units even if I had only done one (fraud), why I couldn’t have just done two units even if she didn’t really need it (also fraud, plus, not good for her), and why I charged her the same amount as usual if I had done less (I set my fee based on my time, not the number of needles). My client, who had never before questioned my treatment decisions and had been happy to pay my full fee before insurance gave her any reimbursement, was now an unhappy client.

Do I refuse to give any receipts to avoid this issue? Do I lower my rates if I do only one set of needles, even though, since I don’t know what will be needed in advance I still have to schedule the same amount of time?

Let me know what you think, but, here’s one thing I know. Don’t tell me that my practice won’t be impacted by your efforts to have insurance cover acupuncture.

The Acupuncture Profession, News and Analysis

Three dedicated AAAOM Board members and AAAOM (super-qualified, knowledgeable, and committed) Executive Director, Denise Graham (my last hope that things could get better) resigned recently.

One board member spoke of an uncomfortable and increasingly controlled board environment, a declining membership (now less than 2% of the profession), and poor relationships with national and state leaders. Another stated that the AAAOM doesn’t have the support, revenue, or credibility to make progress towards legislative goals.

This isn’t the first time AAAOM has been on the ropes. If it hadn’t been for money from the AAC and support from other organizations, I doubt they would have survived this long. Somehow, though, they still manage to control the conversation.

In other news, NCASI, the National Center for Acupuncture Safety and Integrity, has appeared on the scene. NCASI’s list of “10 Facts” should be titled “10 Things We Insist are True and/or Important.”  Dry Needling by PT’s is legal in many states. Review my past posts on dry needling and scope for more background. We take real risks when we files lawsuits like these.

For twenty years, the acupuncture organizations have insisted that our success depends upon —

  • Increasing credentials/educational requirements/scope. It doesn’t matter if the old education, credentials, and scope worked fine. It doesn’t matter if it increases practitioner expense, decreases practitioner flexibility, or prevents some LAcs from utilizing techniques available to any other citizen.
  • Getting someone else to pay for acupuncture. Fight for third-party payment systems even if other professions report they make good medicine more difficult and practice less enjoyable. Ignore the hypocrisy of participating in a system that requires discounting services while also criticizing LAcs who offer low-cost or discounted treatments directly to patients. Insist that practitioners who don’t want to participate won’t be impacted, and turn a blind eye to the fraud that many practitioners engage in to make the $’s work.
  • Demanding a monopoly.  There’s no need to earn your market share by providing the best product — instead establish it through litigation and turf battles. Don’t worry if this requires you to disparage your fellow health providers or contradict your message that the public should be able to choose their providers.

After twenty years many LAcs struggle to stay in business, and most voluntary acupuncture organizations struggle to survive. Got questions about ADA compliance, insurance billing, privacy issues, advertising questions, disciplinary actions? You won’t get answers from the AAAOM and you probably won’t get them from your state organization.

It’s time to change our strategy. We have enough training, clients who seek our services, and other providers who respect the medicine so much they want use it themselves. Yes, we always need be aware of and informed about the regulatory/legislative landscape, but we also need business skills, PR, positive marketing, and an easing of the regulatory burden.  We need a good hard look at the cost of education. We need legal advice and business tools and positive interactions with potential referral sources and colleagues. We don’t need more legal battles, more regulation, more legislation, more degrees that further divide us.

When our organizations provide these things, we’ll have successful organizations, and successful practitioners. (If you don’t believe me, ask POCA.)