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  • Innovative Collaborative Effort Between APTA, United Healthcare, and OptumLabs Could Introduce Important Changes to Pain Management Policies

    What would happen if payers encouraged patients with low back pain (LBP) to explore low-risk treatments such as physical therapy by waiving copays for initial sessions? Thanks to a collaboration between APTA and the nation’s largest private health insurer, we may find out.

    Through its work with APTA, United Healthcare is identifying 10 markets for a pilot program that would employ a variety of policy changes to its pain management program, including the elimination of cost-sharing for an initial physical therapist (PT) visit, easier appointment scheduling for patients, and stepped-up public and physician education efforts emphasizing the benefits of early referral to a PT for pain. If successful, the pilot could help to transform the payment landscape in ways recommended in a recent APTA white paper on addressing the opioid epidemic through better pain management policies.

    The pilot accelerates the practical application of findings from a joint study by APTA, United Healthcare, and OptumLabs on the potential impact of early physical therapy and other nonopioid strategies to address LBP. That study paid particular attention to cost and downstream utilization associated with early physical therapy for LBP.

    The study was one of the topics covered during the 2018 Rothstein Roundtable at the APTA NEXT Conference and Exposition (see video dispatch below). During the Rothstein discussion, David Elton, senior vice president of clinical programs for OptumHealth, characterized the study's findings as ones that "confirm what we've seen"—that "good things happen" when physical therapy is used early in an episode of LBP.

    While not yet finalized for publication—something that could happen as early as fall of this year—the study's results were convincing enough to cause the insurer to move quickly toward the creation of the pilot program.

    "The collaborative work between APTA, United Healthcare, and Optum is an innovative approach that brings providers and payers together to work on truly transforming the health care system in ways that make a difference to patients," said Carmen Elliott, MS, APTA vice president of payment and practice management. "We are excited about the publication of the joint study and pleased for the opportunity to make real-world changes to improve patient access."

    According to United Healthcare, APTA chapter leadership in the 10 markets under consideration will be contacted to schedule webinars that provide an overview of the pilot.

    OptumLabs and OptumHealth are businesses of Optum. Optum and UnitedHealthCare are benefits and services companies of UnitedHealth Group.