Stem Cell Procedures

Kaiser Health News published a report in June 2019 that was critical of employers who offer their workers stem cell procedures for orthopedic injuries. All the employers are self-insured, so they are paying for any procedures their workers elect to undergo.

The question is this: should self-insured employers offer stem cell procedures to workers? Let’s try to answer the question from an unbiased, third-party perspective. A good starting point is to look at exactly what these employers are doing.

Hoping to Avoid Surgery

Contributor Liz Szabo reported that employers around the country, trying to save money on their health insurance costs, are looking at the cost of joint replacement surgeries and wondering if there’s a way to reduce the amount of money they spend on them. The solution for some has been to sign contracts with an Iowa-based regenerative medicine provider that offers stem cell injections for orthopedic issues like osteoarthritis.

A typical knee replacement surgery can cost anywhere between $19,000 and $30,000. On the other hand, a full course of stem cell injections prices out at $1,500 to $9,000. The savings are blatantly obvious. So, some self-insured employers that have signed regenerative medicine contracts are now requiring workers already considering joint replacement surgery to first consult with a regenerative medicine provider.

If it is determined that an employee is a viable candidate for stem cell injections, the company agrees to pay for those injections. If they work, the company avoids paying for joint replacement surgery. If they don’t work, surgery is still an option.

Unproven Treatments

The first objection is one heard often when these sorts of things come up. Critics argue that stem cell injections constitute an unproven treatment that has no medical foundation. Claiming the treatments are unproven is technically correct if the only proof you’re looking for is research data used to gain FDA approval. But as Salt Lake City’s Apex Biologix explains, FDA approval is not necessary for these kinds of procedures.

As for the procedures having no medical foundation, that is not true. Science has long known the function of stem cells in the human body. That’s why so much research is now being conducted. Despite not having a library of clinical results to back it up, stem cell therapy does have a scientific foundation.

The Procedures Don’t Work

The next objection is one that criticizes the regenerative medicine because stem cell injections allegedly don’t work. In fairness, Szabo reported both successful treatments and an equal number of failures. In so doing, she proved one of the fundamental truths of medicine: there is no single procedure that is 100% effective.

It is true that stem cell injections do not work for every osteoarthritis patient. Some patients feel good as new while others don’t experience any relief. But it’s also true that nearly a third of all patients who undergo knee replacement surgery don’t experience any pain relief. Some 20% of joint replacement recipients report being unsatisfied with the results.

Who is Paying the Bill

When you boil it down to its fundamental components, the discussion here really is a matter of who is paying the bill. If an employer wants to take a chance on stem cell injections with the understanding that joint replacement surgery is still on the table, no one else should have a problem with it. It’s the company’s money to spend.

Likewise, reluctant employees don’t have to undergo stem cell treatments. If they prefer an alternative that their insurance will not cover, they can always pay for it out-of-pocket. No one is being forced to do anything.