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Politics & Policy

‘The pain will just kill me’: Newsom blasted for cutting acupuncture in state budget

An elderly woman in a wheelchair speaks into a microphone, surrounded by women, one holding a clipboard. An American flag is attached to her chair.
Man Mei Cheung, a patient who receives acupuncture treatment, speaks against the state budget cut on Medi-Cal’s acupuncture benefit. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

For many patients, acupuncture has the magic that relieves their pain. The traditional Chinese treatment, which uses thin needles inserted into the body, has also become widely accepted in American mainstream society.

But California leaders have some tough decisions to make this year.

The latest state budget proposal excludes acupuncture from the state-subsidized Medi-Cal services for low-income and vulnerable individuals, sparking a furious backlash from patients and the Chinese American community—especially in San Francisco.

A coalition of medical providers, many of whom primarily serve the Asian American community, patients and government officials gathered Thursday morning in San Francisco’s Chinatown to blast Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to exclude acupuncture from Medi-Cal. 

“The governor’s plan to eliminate acupuncture, knowing that AAPI populations rely heavily on this service, speaks to the longstanding underinvestment we have seen in our community,” said Jessica Ho, government affairs director at North East Medical Services (NEMS), a major care provider nonprofit in San Francisco’s Chinese community.

According to Ho, NEMS started offering acupuncture services in 2017 and has treated over 23,000 patients–90% of whom rely on Medi-Cal. The cut will not only affect patients who would need to pay out of pocket for the services: Ho’s organization will also have to reduce services due to lower demand.

Man Mei Cheung, a 68-year-old Chinese immigrant with a disability and chronic arthritis pain, is one of NEMS’s patients. She said her body pain situation is severe, and as a low-income disabled person living in public housing, she would take acupuncture treatment at least twice a month because it’s included in Medi-Cal benefits.

A person is lying face down, receiving acupuncture on their back. A hand is carefully inserting several thin needles into the skin.
North East Medical Services (NEMS) started offering acupuncture services in 2017 and has treated over 23,000 patients–90% of whom rely on Medi-Cal, according to Jessica Ho, government affairs director at NEMS. | Source: Getty Images

“How can I pay out of pocket for this?” Cheung said in Cantonese. “Without acupuncture, the pain will just kill me and ruin the quality of my life.”

Newsom released his revised 2024-25 California state budget earlier this month to close the shortfall of tens of billions of dollars by gutting some of the state’s spending, including health care programs under Medi-Cal. Newsom’s plan eliminates acupuncture as an optional Medi-Cal benefit for adults, meaning the treatment no longer qualifies for state reimbursement. 

In response to the criticisms, Newsom’s office said in a statement that the governor had to cut many programs he’s supported before. The acupuncture cut is expected to save about $5.4 million from the General Fund.

“We don’t find any joy in this, but we’ve got to do it,” Newsom said. “We have to be responsible. We have to be accountable. We have to balance the budget.”

Mollee Bekele, another acupuncture patient, said Thursday that she suffered from chronic pain and anxiety and tried prescribed pain management medications with little improvement. She said after trying acupuncture, her pain subsided. 

A woman in a colorful sweater sits in a wheelchair displaying an American flag. She is outdoors, flanked by a woman on the left and a man in the background.
Man Mei Cheung, a patient who benefits from acupuncture to help with chronic pain, speaks at a press conference in Chinatown to oppose state budget cut. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Dr. Michelle Lau, the president of the advocacy group Council of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Associations, argued that acupuncture benefits help the government save money.  

Many patients are low-income elders and immigrants, Lau said, and pain relief can help improve patients’ overall health and reduce the need for more expensive treatments. 

The coalition of medical providers, including HealthRIGHT 360 and Chinese Hospital, also drafted a letter to state leaders and said the cut would hurt underserved patients, especially those with chronic pain.

“Acupuncture has been personally helpful to me,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “We have to choose our ‘need’ to have and our ‘want’ to have. Acupuncture is a ‘need’ to have.”

An older man with gray hair and glasses speaks at an outdoor podium. A man in the background watches, and a blurred figure is in the foreground.
Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin says acupuncture has been personally helpful to himself at a press conference. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Peskin said he plans to introduce a resolution at the next Board of Supervisors meeting to urge the state lawmakers to restore funding for acupuncture.

Phil Ting, a Chinese American Assembly member from San Francisco, was a major supporter of restoring acupuncture benefits to Medi-Cal in 2016. He said he will push for acupuncture during the state budget process again.

“While I understand the fiscal difficulties the state is facing,” Ting said, “I worry that cutting this critical service would disproportionately impact lower-income, underserved patients relying on acupuncture every day to treat crippling pain.”