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.)


LAcs = Tea Party & Acupuncture Today = Fox News?

The threat to acupuncture from dry needling is like the threat to “traditional” marriage from gay marriage. That is, the real threat is our obsession with the issue and our willingness to make any argument, no matter how ridiculous, to keep people from connecting with the provider of their choice.

Despite thousands of years of experience and a big head-start, we didn’t establish ourselves as the undisputed experts of this method of pain relief. Having failed to convince the PT Boards that PT’s performing dry needling is a danger to the public, or that LAcs should get to determine the appropriate training for this technique, we are now arguing that we’ll accept it, as long as it hurts.

The November 2013 issue of AcupunctureToday included Dry Needling: Averting a Crisis for the Profession, here is my response to AT —

Dr. Amaro’s “obvious solution” to Dry Needling, that PT’s be judicially mandated to use a hypodermic needle, is awful. Has it come to this? Despite our 2,000+ year head-start our plan for success is to require other providers to use a tool that causes tissue damage and pain? There is no non-political reason for a board to require its licensees to use an unnecessarily harmful tool. To present it as a possibility is an embarrassment to the profession.

While some auto insurance and worker’s compensation will reimburse for dry needling, for the most part Trigger Point Dry Needling is not a billable service when performed by a physical therapist. It is considered “experimental and unproven” by Medicare and major medical insurance companies. And, if it were true that PT’s were getting rich on reimbursements for this technique, is that an argument against allowing them to perform an effective procedure? Don’t we support people getting relief from pain, regardless of who is paying the bill?

It would be tragic if we were successful in requiring everyone using a filiform needle to use the term acupuncture while losing the battle to prevent non-LAcs from performing the technique. Given various rulings of state AG’s, and of the regulatory boards responsible for other professions, this is a strong possibility. Then, we will have lost our ability to distinguish what we do from what others do. (And, ironically, would help PT’s obtain reimbursement.)

We had decades to establish ourselves as the experts in this technique. We didn’t, and, frankly, many of us are unpracticed with it and uninterested in making it a major part of our clinic offerings.  Addressing unfair reimbursement scenarios is reasonable. Respectfully presenting evidence-based concerns about risks to the public is part of our civic duty. Our ongoing panicked response to TPDN, with arguments based on misinformation or a misunderstanding of such basic topics as scope and the regulatory process, culminating in the argument in Acupuncture Today – that it’s okay as long as it hurts –  is the real threat to our reputation and our future.

I encourage you to read all of my posts on this topic (you can get them via the categories or tags on the homepage) and on scope of practice. It is time for the acupuncture profession to stop shooting itself in the foot.

Health Insurance for the LAc — Important Point #1

Insurance does not create money, it redistributes it. The money coming in via premiums or taxes must be equal to or greater than the payments for services and the expense of the bureaucracy (whether government or private) that manages the system. (With government programs we have chosen to ignore the imbalance between what is coming in and what goes out. Eventually, we’ll have to face it.)

The system depends on lots of healthy people paying in more than they get back in services. That offsets the folks who need lots and lots of care.

Here are some costs (yes, this term can mean a lot of different things):

  • Type 2 Diabetes — Annual Medical expenses of $13,700 with $7,900 attributed to diabetes.
  • High Blood Pressure — costs of $733/person in 2010.
  • Stroke — Average cost for first 90 days after a stroke is $15,000.
  • Breast Cancer — Average annual cost of $22,000 to manage the early stages with management of stages 3 and 4 costs in excess of $120,000.

Some of the ways insurance companies made sure they took in more than they paid out:

  • limited the amount paid out over a lifetime — reach a million and you are on your own.
  • refused to cover pre-existing conditions — your diabetes will cost a lot, so we won’t cover it.  (This also kept people from waiting until they were sick to buy coverage.)
  • charged “sick” people significantly higher premiums — you have diabetes and HTN likely to cost $1000/month, so your premiums will be $1300/month.

Most of us were bothered by these limitations (especially when we think of individuals – your patient, your cousin). The PPACA eliminates or greatly limits these practices — you can’t be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions, there are no lifetime limits for EHB, and premiums are determined by age and type of coverage, not medical status. These changes force the companies to pay out more per person, and limits what they can take in per person.

To keep premiums from being unaffordably high many healthy people need to pay into the system. This is why the PPACA requires everyone to buy insurance or to pay a penalty.  It is also why the system collapses if everyone expects to get services equivalent to (or greater than) what they pay in premiums.

If someone pays a $150 monthly premium and expects to get ten acupuncture treatments/year, and you “deserve” $700 or more for those treatments, there isn’t much left to cover the bureaucracy or the costs of their neighbor with cancer, their father who just had a stroke, or their own colonoscopy, broken arm, or appendectomy.

This has real implications for your acupuncture practice — whether or not you are a participating provider, whether or not acupuncture is an EHB in your state, and whether or not you expect the AAAOM’s federal legislation to succeed.  Stay tuned for more.

(Here is an NYT article looking at medical choices and costs.)

Please support discrimination?!?

Another entry in our Hypocrites with Double Standards (HWDS) files?

I’ve been reading about the importance of Section 2706 of the Affordable Care Act for our profession. It wouldn’t be right for insurance companies to cover acupuncture only if performed by an MD, right? The concerns within our community, according to the press, are that the section might be undermined by the actions of the AMA (this makes us angry!) or not strongly enforced.

Okay, non-discrimination good.

Wait a second — AOMSM, the Massachusetts acupuncture association, is pushing legislation that discriminates.  Section 7 of S1107 and H2021 reads “The use of needles on trigger points, Ashi points, and/or for intramuscular needling for the treatment of myofascial pain will be considered the practice of acupuncture” (does it matter what type of needles?) and Section 8 reads “Only licensed acupuncturists or medical doctors shall be reimbursed for acupuncture services.” Is anyone surprised that “political agents for PTs in MA have taken measures to prevent “An Act Relative to the Practice of Acupuncture” from advancing”?

So — discrimination is good if it works in my favor, bad if it works against me?  How does this reflect on our profession and the future of integrated health? Not well, in my opinion.  What do you think?

Insurance — Ensuring Trouble?

“The insurance company used to pay this code, now they won’t, what can I do?” or “Why are they asking for preauthorization all of a sudden?” Questions like this have suddenly become common in acupuncture discussion groups. I believe that until recently, most insurance companies in most jurisdictions saw a relatively tiny number of claims related to acupuncture services. Now, as more practitioners and patients take advantage of increasing coverage for acupuncture, we’ve crossed a threshold. Some companies now pay out enough for acupuncture services that it has become worth their while to pay closer attention to claims.

Given the cost of conventional medical care (greatly related to technology and Big Pharma) insurance makes sense. It is easy to imagine circumstances, and many of us don’t have to imagine, in which one could owe tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical care. That isn’t the case with acupuncture.

It’s great if you’ve decided that part of your practice will be working with insurance. It is nice that we have the option. For some it signals that “we’ve arrived.” It helps our acceptance and it enables us to reach a population that might not otherwise consider our medicine. Currently, acupuncturists who know how to work well with the insurance system may do well with their reimbursements, coming close to matching their regular fee.

Please, though, be aware. The more your income is controlled by the insurance companies the less control you have . And the more our profession depends upon insurance the more power that industry has over our medicine. If the industry decides to cut reimbursements, or to further limit the codes they will cover, or the number of treatments they’ll cover (and if we look at the experience of other professions we know they almost certainly will) we may find ourselves stuck.  If the insurance industry determines they will only cover acupuncture for back pain will that influence even those paying out of pocket?

Some practitioners are not working well with the system but are instead working the system — billing for more units of acupuncture than they perform; adding additional services to the treatment, or even worse, just to the bill; using ICD codes that get reimbursement even if that isn’t the focus of treatment. They sometimes cross the line into fraud, though they believe they have good justifications for doing so. Big Insurance is unlikely to agree, and that will reflect upon all of us.

Personally, I’ve made the choice to discount my fee directly to my clients. I find it much more enjoyable than getting the same amount only after a painful dance with the insurance industry. It’s great if you make a different choice. But don’t forget that with greater participation comes greater scrutiny. When you play with the insurance companies, they set the rules, and they can always find a way to win, even when playing with professions far more powerful than ours.


The Biggest Problem

facing the profession today is….  I’m sure we could (and will in the next few months) come up with quite a list to choose from.  I bet if you asked a random sampling of acupuncturists today, a significant percentage would say it is that most insurance and medicare doesn’t cover acupuncture.  Certainly a lot of energy has been spent trying to change that, last week’s petition drive only one example.

If I had a magic wand and magically made acupuncture part of the medicare system and required that all insurance companies covered it, would it serve our profession?  I’m not so sure, and there are lots of reasons why.

One consideration is that a significant percentage of people in the U.S. do not live or work a reasonable distance from an acupuncturist.  If a program were put in place tomorrow that paid for acupuncture treatment, no questions asked, for every citizen, many, many folks would still go without.  We still have six states without licensure.  In most states with licensure there are large areas with no practitioners, and even in areas with acupuncturists there may not be enough to handle a large influx of new patients.  (This is why it made sense for the ACA to default to existing large plans in a state — the system had already begun to address delivery.)

More on this soon.  For now, ponder where people would get acupuncture if, all of a sudden, lots more people wanted it.  Are there other issues that should be a higher priority?