Alternative Treatments Could See Wide Acceptance Thanks to Obamacare

BY Kaiser Health News and Ankita Rao  July 29, 2013 at 9:38 AM EST


The Affordable Care Act says that insurance companies “shall not discriminate” against any state-licensed health provider, which could lead to better coverage of chiropractic, homeopathic and naturopathic care. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Jane Guiltinan said the husbands are usually the stubborn ones.

When her regular patients, often married women, bring their spouses to the Bastyr Center for Natural Health to try her approach to care, the men are often skeptical of the treatment plan — a mix of herbal remedies, lifestyle changes and sometimes, conventional medicine.

After 31 years of practice, Guiltinan, a naturopathic physician, said it is not uncommon for health providers without the usual nurse or doctor background to confront patients’ doubts. “I think it’s a matter of education and cultural change,” she said.

As for the husbands — they often come around, Guiltinan said, but only after they see that her treatments solve their problems.

Complementary and alternative medicine — a term that encompasses meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic care and homeopathic treatment, among other things — has become increasingly popular. About four in 10 adults (and one in nine children) in the U.S. are using some form of alternative medicine, according to the National Institutes of Health.

And with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the field could make even more headway in the mainstream health care system. That is, unless the fine print — in state legislation and insurance plans — falls short because of unclear language and insufficient oversight.

One clause of the health law in particular — Section 2706 — is widely discussed in the alternative medicine community because it requires that insurance companies “shall not discriminate” against any health provider with a state-recognized license. That means a licensed chiropractor treating a patient for back pain, for instance, must be reimbursed the same as medical doctors. In addition, nods to alternative medicine are threaded through other parts of the law in sections on wellness, prevention and research.

“It’s time that our health care system takes an integrative approach … whether conventional or alternative,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who authored the anti-discrimination provision, in an e-mail. “Patients want good outcomes with good value, and complementary and alternative therapies can provide both.”

The federal government has, in recent years, tapped providers like Guiltinan, who is also the dean at the Bastyr University College of Naturopathic Medicine, to help advise the federal government and implement legislation that could affect the way they are paid and their disciplines are incorporated into the health care continuum. In 2012, Guiltinan, based in Kenmore, Wash., was appointed to the advisory council of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Proving that alternative medicine has real, measurable benefits has been key to increasing its role in the system, said John Weeks, editor of the Integrator Blog, an online publication for the alternative medicine community. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, created by the health law, is funding studies on alternative medicine treatments to determine their effectiveness.

Weeks said both lawmakers and the general public will soon have access to that research, including the amount of money saved by integrating other forms of medicine into the current health system.

But the challenges of introducing alternative care don’t stop with science.

Because under the health care law each state defines its essential benefits plan — what is covered by insurance — somewhat differently, the language concerning alternative medicine has to be very specific in terms of who gets paid and for what kinds of treatment, said Deborah Senn, the former insurance commissioner in Washington and an advocate for alternative medicine coverage.

She pointed out that California excluded coverage for chiropractic care in its essential benefits plan, requiring patients to pay out of pocket for their treatment. Senn thinks the move was most likely an oversight and an unfavorable one for the profession. Four other states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah — ruled the same way in the past year.

“That’s just an outright violation of the law,” she said, referring to the ACA clause.

Colorado and Oregon are in the process of changing that ruling to allow chiropractic care to be covered, according to researchers at Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care.

Some states, like Washington, are ahead of the rest of the country in embracing alternative practitioners. The Bastyr University system, where Guiltinan works, treats 35,000 patients a year with naturopathic medicine. Sixty percent of the patients billed insurance companies for coverage.

Guiltinan said a change in the system is not only a boon for alternative medicine doctors, but helps families of all income levels access care normally limited to out-of-pocket payment. That’s why some alternative medicine aficianados like Rohit Kumar are hoping the law will increase the ability of his family — and the larger community – to obtain this kind of care.

Kumar, a 26-year-old business owner in Los Angeles, said his parents and brothers have always used herbs and certain foods when they get sick, and regularly see a local naturopath and herbalist. He’s only used antibiotics once, he says, when he caught dengue fever on a trip to India.

While the Kumar family pays for any treatments they need with cash — the only payment both alternative providers accept — they also pay for a high-deductible health plan every month to cover emergencies, like when his brother recently broke his arm falling off a bike.

Paying for a conventional health care plan and maintaining their philosophy of wellness is not cheap.

“We pay a ridiculous amount of money every month,” Kumar said of the high-deductible insurance. “And none of it goes toward any type of medicine we believe in.”

Even so, he said the family will continue to practice a lifestyle that values wellness achieved without a prescription — a philosophy that Guiltinan also adopted in her practice.

As a young medical technician in a San Francisco hospital, she decided that the traditional medical system was geared more toward managing diseases and symptoms rather than prevention. Naturopathic medicine, on the other hand, seemed to fit her idea of how a doctor could address the root cause of illness.

“The body has an innate ability for healing, but we get in its way,” Guiltinan said. “Health is more than the absence of disease.”


Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.