5 Types of Alternative Medicine Your Insurance May Cover

alternative medicine health insurance

Do you have an ache, illness or injury that your doctor can't seem to fix? If you turn to alternative treatments, don't count on your health insurer to foot the bill.

Americans spent $33.9 billion on alternative medicine in 2007, most of it out of pocket, according to the National Institutes of Health.

However, many health insurance plans offer some coverage for some types of alternative medicine, says Mary Kelley, business office manager for the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle.

Specifics depend on your insurance company, the type of treatment and your health condition, she says.

Here are five alternative therapies that might be covered by your insurer.

1. Acupuncture

Acupuncture, a technique that originated in China more than 3,000 years ago, involves stimulating specific points on the body, typically by inserting sterile needles into the body.

Acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of conditions from seasonal allergies to migraines to back pain, according to a primer on acupuncture from the UC San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine.

However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness for other conditions.

Coverage varies by insurer and plan. For example, one BlueCross plan offers acupuncture with an in-network provider with 15 percent coinsurance, an amount the patient must pay out-of-pocket and up to 24 visits per year.

One Cigna plan requires a $25 copay per visit and limits visits to 30 calendar days a year.

2. Biofeedback

Biofeedback involves using sensors that provide feedback to help the patient use thoughts to create changes in the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Biofeedback can be used to treat a range of problems, including anxiety, chronic pain, constipation, high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome.

Coverage varies by plan, according to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB). Some insurers cover biofeedback only for certain conditions, such as tension or migraine headaches, Kelley says.

Many plans exclude biofeedback, but some cover it for specific medical conditions, such as incontinence or migraines.

For example, one plan covers biofeedback with a $30 copay while another has 30 percent coinsurance.

3. Chiropractic treatment

Chiropractors make adjustments to the spine and other parts of the body, according to the National Institutes of Health. Chiropractic manipulations can be used to treat headaches, neck aches and lower back pain, according to the NIH.

Chiropractic care is covered by most health insurance plans, Medicare and some Medicaid plans, according to an FAQ from the American Chiropractic Association.

Insurers often cover chiropractic care for patients suffering from migraines or back or neck pain from a car accident, Kelley says.

For example, one BlueCross plan offers 12 chiropractor visits per year with a $20 copay per visit. One Cigna plan has a $25 copay if you use an in-network provider or 30 percent coinsurance for an out-of-network provider.

4. Massage

The benefits of massage are still being studied, but massage might be helpful for anxiety, fibromyalgia, headaches, insomnia, sports injuries and joint pain, according to a primer on massage from the Mayo Clinic.

Many insurance companies cover massage for chronic back or shoulder pain when the patient has failed to get relief from other treatments such as anti-inflammatory medicine, exercises and icing, Kelley says. 

The insurance company might first agree to cover four or five visits, then approve more sessions if the patient’s condition improves, she says.

5. Clinical hypnosis

This is when a licensed medical or mental health professional places a patient under hypnosis -- an altered state of consciousness that creates extreme relaxation -- to treat a physical or psychological problem, according to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH).

Clinical hypnosis can be used for a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, alcoholism and phobias. Insurance companies typically cover 50 to 80 percent of the cost of hypnosis performed by a licensed professional, according to the ASCH.

Check with your insurer or broker to get details on what types of alternative medicine your plan does and doesn't cover, says Eric Wilson, a licensed health insurance agent in Illinois.

Some insurers require preauthorization while others put a limit on the number of sessions, Kelley says.

"And some insurers just deny coverage," she says.

Paying out of pocket for alternative medicine

If your insurer won't cover a treatment such as acupuncture or chiropractic care, or if you want an experimental therapy, you might have to pay out of pocket. For example, Aetna sometimes covers acupuncture, biofeedback and chiropractic care, but has a long list of alternative treatments that aren't covered -- including aura healing, Chinese blood cleansing, laughter therapy, meditation and yoga.

If you have to pay for your own treatment, there are two ways you may be able to cut your costs:

Ask for a cash pay rate. Many alternative medicine providers offer sliding scales or special rates for patients paying out of pocket, Kelley says.

Pay with your HSA. If you have a high-deductible health insurance plan and a health savings account, an account that allows you to save funds not subject to federal income tax, you may be able to use your HSA to pay for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic care and supplements that have been prescribed by a doctor.

In general, you should plan to pay for alternative care because many types of treatments aren't covered, Wilson says.

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