A trade group representing acupuncturists and practitioners of “oriental medicine” is attempting to convince the Department of Health and Human Services to classify acupuncture as an “essential health benefit” under Obamacare.
The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine established a task force to spearhead the effort, which organized a letter-writing campaign directed at HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. A total of 5,571 letters and emails were sent, according to the organization’s website.
“Acupuncture fits all of the criteria for an eligible EHB service,” claims a position paper drafted by the AAAOM, “and has demonstrated meaningful improvement in outcomes over current effective services and treatments for conditions in at least five [of] the  often general categories of health care outlined by HHS and IOM.”
Acupuncture, the letter goes on to insist, “is already an important part of the fabric of American healthcare.” A spokesperson for the AAAOM said they have not received a response from HHS.
But watchdog groups are not convinced of AAAOM’s position. The Center for Inquiry, which describes itself as “a national nonprofit organization that advocates for public policy based on science through research, publishing, lobbying, and community outreach,” sent a letter to Sebelius urging her to reject AAAOM’s request.
According to the Institute of Medicine, for a service to be eligible as an EHB, it must: (1) be safe, (2) be medically effective, (3) demonstrate meaningful improvement, (4) be a medical service, and (5) be cost effective.
Acupuncture meets none of these five criteria. Proponents of acupuncture repeatedly claim that acupuncture is a safe, efficacious, and cost effective complement to conventional medicine. However, such claims are unjustified, and rely on dubious and discredited research. In fact, an increasingly robust body of empirical evidence has shown that acupuncture is unproven, unscientific, and has no clinical value beyond a placebo effect. Medical interventions that perform no better than placebos should not be funded by the government. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve drugs as “safe and effective” when they perform no better than placebos. Similarly, HHS should not classify a procedure as an EHB when it provides no benefits beyond what could be expected from a placebo.
HHS did not return a request for comment. But even if the agency declines to include acupuncture in its essential health benefits package, the AAAOM’s efforts illustrate a problematic element of the Obamacare law: because federal bureaucrats are empowered to decide what insurance companies must cover, special interest groups now have a strong incentive to devote resources to lobbying the federal government for favors such as inclusion in the EHB package.
Coverage mandates like those under Obamacare remove consumers’ ability to choose a health plan that offers the benefits that suit them best—which for many, probably doesn’t include things like acupuncture. Even so, if groups like these are successful at getting their preferred service included in the essential health benefit package, the insured will pay for it through higher premiums.