The opioid epidemic is growing at an alarming rate in the United States. To address this, Medicaid programs and a limited number of health insurance companies across the nation are covering alternative treatments like acupuncture to help treat pain. Many acupuncturists having been working with their state legislatures to have more acupuncture coverage.
- Bonnie Bolash is a licensed acupuncturist in Minnesota. She advocates for acupuncture coverage and is involved in the Minnesota opioid bill. You can visit Bonnie’s website at bonniebolash.com.
- Kimberly Fritz is a licensed acupuncturist in Minnesota and owns Green Dragon Acupuncture.
Acupuncture’s Role in Combating the Opioid Epidemic
The Opioid Epidemic
Families across the country are feeling the devastation of the opioid addiction that is affecting their loved ones. More than 70,000 Americans have died due to a drug overdose in 2017, surpassing the number of deaths due to heart disease and cancer.
An opioid is a medication, often prescribed by a doctor, to help relieve pain. It also includes heroin and nonprescription medications that contain opioids. Opioids only manage the pain by causing changes in the way your brain responds to pain and lowering the number of pain signals sent to your brain. And it is highly addictive.
Opioid prescriptions were given out at a greater rate after 2000, when the Joint Commission required healthcare facilities to show that they were assessing and treating pain. This then lead to opioid misuse and overdoses. According to Health and Human Services, more than 11 million people were misusing prescription opioids in 2017.
Federal and local governments haven taken the initiative to combat the opioid crisis, although more can be done. Policies have been passed to cut back on prescribing, doctor shopping, and increasing access to various treatments. For alternative treatments like acupuncture, studies have found that it had positive results to help relieve pain and addiction withdrawal symptoms.
Are All Acupuncture Treatments Equal?
When it comes to receiving acupuncture from medical doctors, physical therapists and licensed acupuncturists, is there a difference?
Kimberly Fritz: Most doctors don’t want to do it in the first place. In their mind, it’s not an effective use of their time because, as traditional Chinese medical practitioners, we spend way more time with our patients than your Western practitioner does. But if you can find a Western MD doing it, typically, unless they’ve gone through the training that I have–which is a graduate level master’s degree–they’ve done probably a hundred hour certification course.
Doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists–they’re not treating the root of the problem. They’re doing a Band-Aid fix. Chiropractors, I think, can do the best job out of the three–if I were to give anybody credit–because a lot of chiropractors understand the limitations. — Kimberly Fritz
Kimberly Fritz: They [chiropractors] are only allowed to do it [acupuncture] with an adjustment. In other words, they adjust you and then they decide they want to give you some acupuncture for your tennis elbow. Okay. That they can do if they have the training. But what they use is what we call a point prescription. What they were taught in school is, for tennis elbow–which is a Western diagnosis–for tennis elbow, use these five acupuncture points. That’s all they know. They don’t actually create their own treatment strategy. When you see a well trained, licensed acupuncturist in Minnesota, you will receive a complete consultation evaluation and that person will put together a treatment strategy specifically for you.
Advocating for Acupuncture Coverage in Minnesota
In Minnesota, Governor Tim Waltz recently signed a bill that requires drug makers and distributors to pay a higher licensing fee to do business in the state. That money will go into a fund that will go towards programs to combat the opioid crisis. However, the opioid bill did not include access to acupuncture as a non-drug treatment. Bonnie Bolash is a licensed acupuncturist in Minnesota.
How did you begin advocating for acupuncture coverage, and why did you get involved with the opioid bill in Minnesota?
Bonnie Bolash: I have been an advocate in the state of Minnesota for legislation for our profession for quite some time. I was one of the lead persons for Minnesota in 2009 to get an equal access to acupuncture bill passed, which was an attempt to stop discrimination by insurance companies from paying licensed acupuncturists to provide acupuncture.
Why Access to Non-drug Treatments Is Important
Bonnie Bolash: There are particular populations, like children, at risk for opioid problems…If you listened to the testimony on January 29th, I believe it was, there were…people in recovery that were testifying: I went into the doctor, I told the doctor, you know, I have this history of addiction. I don’t want you to prescribe me opioids, but I have this pain. And you know what? They came out with a prescription for opioids. That is literally crazy. Patients, especially that population, need access to non-drug approaches because they want to keep their sobriety. But they’re not being offered that.
Insurance Policies and Acupuncture
What can people do if they want to have acupuncture or other alternative treatments covered in their insurance policy?
Bonnie Bolash: As a policy holder, when it comes to any type of coverage, you can actually ask…if more employers ask to make sure that non-drug approaches are available, such as acupuncture, things will change. Things don’t change unless someone says something. And it’s not like you’re complaining, you’re just trying to educate someone. Like, I have a history of addiction. I want access to non-drug approaches, and I’ve heard that acupuncture is a really great option for acute and chronic pain. Like, when I go to the ER, can I ask for an acupuncturist to treat me rather than you giving me IV morphine because I have an addiction history, and I don’t want to ruin my sobriety by having you put that stuff into my body. Because I know how my body responds. It’s not a choice. Your body physically will demand it.
Press play at the top to learn more about how Bonnie worked with the Minnesota legislature on the opioid bill and how acupuncture can help treat opioid addiction.