The Veterans Health Administration is moving the needle in the search for alternatives to pharmaceuticals for pain relief.
The single largest integrated health care system in the country, the VA has loosened restrictions involving acupuncture for patients with chronic pain.
While some VA hospitals have offered the ancient Chinese practice for decades, there were limited locations and providers. Now, the VA no longer requires that acupuncturists have a medical degree to practice the procedure (though board-certification by the Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is required). Evidence of the burgeoning acceptance of the practice and the practitioner came earlier this year when the VA Health Administration revised its standards to name “acupuncturist” as a recognized caregiver employment position. And the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification Manual, published by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, gives “acupuncturist” its own federally recognized labor category.
These moves should help shift the alt-med treatment (which involves the use of sterilized ultra-thin needles at specific points in the body) into the mainstream. And that should help catalog its efficacy, which has been inconclusive in the U.S., though the treatment is widespread throughout the Eastern world and history.
There should be a sense of urgency in the search for alternatives to patches and pills. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has reached crisis proportions. More than 49,000 people suffered fatal overdoses in 2017 and many of those overdoses involved medication prescribed by doctors for pain relief.
Options that once would have been considered fringe should be given fresh eyes. Acupuncture is one of those options.
There are on-site facilities at VA hospitals in Pittsburgh and Butler, Dayton and Cincinnati.
Society stands to benefit from the VA’s wisdom in helping to make acupuncture more available to patients.
Now, health insurers must be pressed to offer coverage for the procedure. Few health insurers do. This is reminiscent of mainstream medicine’s dubious regard for chiropractic treatment. What is now standard operating procedure for many patients, spinal manipulations by chiropractors is widely covered by health insurance plans though they had been viewed skeptically just 25 years ago.
The U.S. health care system — doctors and hospitals and insurers — must look for pain relief options that don’t come in a bottle.