UnitedHealthcare introduces new benefit for treating low back pain in employer plans

UnitedHealthcare has rolled out a new benefit intended to reduce out-of-pocket costs for physical therapy for low back pain. (jetcityimage/Getty)

UnitedHealthcare rolled out a new benefit for patients in employer-sponsored plans to cover physical therapy or chiropractic care for low back pain.

Patients enrolled in certain employer-sponsored plans can pay $0 out of pocket if they get physical therapy or treatment for lower back pain instead of more invasive options such as surgeries.

“Based on a UnitedHealthcare analysis, by 2021 this benefit design has the potential to reduce the number of spinal imaging tests by 22%, spinal surgeries by 21% opioid use by 19% and lower the total cost of care for eligible plan participants and employers,” UnitedHealthcare said in a release Tuesday.

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The benefit would cover for patients at no additional cost three physical therapy or chiropractic visits in addition to any visits normally covered by the health plan.

UnitedHealthcare added it created the new benefit design after a recent study from OptumLabs and the Boston University School of Public Health. It showed that people with a copay of more than $30 were 29% less likely to see a physical therapist than patients who had a copay of just $0. Another study from the American Journal of Managed Care found a similar correlation.

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UnitedHealthcare is trying to curb the number of opioids prescribed for low back pain.

“Despite clinical recommendations against it, opioids are prescribed for nearly 9% of new low back pain cases, with this condition ranking as the most common reason for an opioid prescription,” UnitedHealthcare said.

The insurer added that eligible insurers with UnitedHealthcare plans that already include coverage for physical therapy and chiropractic visits have this benefit at no additional cost.