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JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Oct 5;1(6):e183044. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3044.

Coverage of Nonpharmacologic Treatments for Low Back Pain Among US Public and Private Insurers.

Author information

Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.
Department of Health Policy & Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Division of General Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.



Despite epidemic rates of addiction and death from prescription opioids in the United States, suggesting the importance of providing alternatives to opioids in the treatment of pain, little is known regarding how payers' coverage policies may facilitate or impede access to such treatments.


To examine coverage policies for 5 nonpharmacologic approaches commonly used to treat acute or chronic low back pain among commercial and Medicare Advantage insurance plans, plus an additional 6 treatments among Medicaid plans.

Design, Setting, and Participants:

Cross-sectional study of 15 commercial, 15 Medicaid, and 15 Medicare Advantage health plans for the 2017 calendar year in 16 states representing more than half of the US population. Interviews were conducted with 43 senior medical and pharmacy health plan executives from representative plans.

Main Outcomes and Measures:

Medical necessity and coverage status for the treatments examined, as well as the use of utilization management tools and cost-sharing magnitude and structure.


Commercial and Medicare insurers consistently regarded physical and occupational therapy as medically necessary, but policies varied for other therapies examined. Payers most commonly covered physical therapy (98% [44 of 45 plans]), occupational therapy (96% [43 of 45 plans]), and chiropractic care (89% [40 of 45 plans]), while transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (67% [10 of 15 plans]) and steroid injections (60% [9 of 15 plans]) were the most commonly covered among the therapies examined for Medicaid plans only. Despite evidence in the literature to support use of acupuncture and psychological interventions, these therapies were either not covered by plans examined (67% of all plans [30 of 45] did not cover acupuncture) or lacked information about coverage (80% of Medicaid plans [12 of 15] lacked information about coverage of psychological interventions). Utilization management tools, such as prior authorization, were common, but criteria varied greatly with respect to which conditions and what quantity and duration of services were covered. Interviewees represented 6 Medicaid managed care organizations, 2 Medicare Advantage or Part D plans, 9 commercial plans, and 3 trade organizations (eg, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association). Interviews with plan executives indicated a low level of integration between the coverage decision-making processes for pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies for chronic pain.

Conclusions and Relevance:

Wide variation in coverage of nonpharmacologic treatments for low back pain may be driven by the absence of best practices, the administrative complexities of developing and revising coverage policies, and payers' economic incentives. Such variation suggests an important opportunity to improve the accessibility of services, reduce opioid use, and ultimately improve the quality of care for individuals with chronic, noncancer pain while alleviating the burden of opioid addiction and overdose.

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