Commentary: Should massage therapy be covered by insurance?

Commentary: Should massage therapy be covered by insurance?
May 20
14:24 2020

By Nike Roach

While “getting a massage” has typically been associated with pampering oneself or taking a trip to the spa, it has also been known to have many medical benefits. Some of these include being an effective treatment for back pain, improving circulation, treating and preventing tension headaches, and as a treatment for both acute and chronic medical conditions resulting from illness or injury. 

According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the number of massage therapists has increased by 25% over the past 10 years, and the amount of people who went for massages increased from 15% in 2014 to 19% in 2018. Seventy percent of those consumers agreed that massage should be considered a form of healthcare, while 88% believed it is beneficial to health and wellness. 

So why is it that only 25% of massage therapists are being reimbursed by insurance?

In many states, massage therapy is not covered by health insurance; furthermore, not all massage therapists accept insurance. Based on a study spanning 29 states and 26 large-scale insurance policies by carriers such as Blue Cross and AmeriHealth, only 27% of them covered massage therapy, and those that did required a physician’s note or prescription. Of those providers, none of the policies covered massage as a stand-alone treatment. The massage must be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that would include another therapeutic procedure on the same day for it to be eligible to be reimbursed by insurance.

The shocking part is that some of these large carriers don’t cover massage therapy at all in some states. For example, Blue Cross of NC does not cover massage therapy on almost all of its insurance plans. Another provider not covering massage therapy at all is Cigna. Although they have published many articles by medical professionals about the importance of massage therapy, they have excluded it from their benefits services. Even with the new COVID-19 mandates indicating that massage therapy is allowed accompanied by a note from a medical provider or naturopath, the insurance providers are not budging. 

Massage therapy is still not covered by insurance, and this is further disadvantaging those with chronic or acute medical conditions who have already been paying for these basic medical requirements out of pocket, and are now having to suffer in silence.

The irony lies in the fact that the Department of Veteran Affairs health insurance system covers massage therapy from outside providers. They indicate on their government website that they consider massage therapy a form of medicine that may not be conventional, however the body-based practice is used to rehabilitate injuries, reduce anxiety and depression, and aid in general well-being.

While citizens of the U.S. are paying hundreds of dollars a year for health and insurance coverage, many of them are also paying out of pocket for “alternative” medical services such as massage therapy. The problem lies in the conflicting views concerning massage therapy: is it a luxury or a physical form of medicine? Health insurance carriers pride themselves on being comprehensive providers of health and wellness. With the uncertainty of when massage therapists will be able to accept clients as usual due to COVID 19, many people are being denied their right to health and wellness because of insurance providers’ stiff regulations toward coverage. 

These hard times offer some perspective: is it finally time for these insurance providers to step up?

Nike Roach is a licensed massage therapist and owner of 6th Sense Health & Wellness Center in downtown Winston-Salem.

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