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Medicare will pay for acupuncture that is part of low back pain research

Former Marine Capt. Billy Birdzell gets an acupuncture treatment from Robert Duggan at the WisdomWell center in Columbia, Md., on March 12, 2014. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Medicare will cover acupuncture for people involved in research on whether the treatment is effective for chronic low back pain among older adults under a new proposal announced by the Trump administration Monday.

The studies will allow the government to assess whether there is enough evidence to offer Medicare coverage of the controversial treatment to a wider group of people age 65 and older who are afflicted by chronic low back pain. Currently, the giant government health insurance program does not cover acupuncture.

“By focusing on older adults and addressing the limitations of previous published research, evidence derived from this initiative would assist [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] in determining future Medicare coverage for acupuncture,” according to the announcement.

The proposal is part of the government’s effort to develop alternatives to narcotics as treatment for pain.

The eligible studies must be sponsored by the National Institutes of Health or approved by CMS.

Chronic low back pain — generally defined as pain that lasts 12 weeks or more — is a complex disorder with numerous causes that afflicts millions of people. There is widespread agreement that health-care providers have overused powerful opioid painkillers to address it.

Currently, Medicare covers injections, braces, implanted neurostimulators and chiropractic care as well as drugs for chronic low-back pain, under certain conditions set by the program. But Monday’s announcement said there is too little research on the use of acupuncture among older people to make a good decision on whether it should be widely covered.

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