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Reform Threatens Alternative Medicine

Reform Threatens Alternative Medicine

By Curt Levey and Jim Turner - March 17, 2010

We are the heads of two non-profit organizations - one of us liberal and the other conservative - who are concerned that the impending healthcare legislation will negatively impact holistic and natural medicine and limit the healthcare choices of the people who consume it.

Because alternative medicine is highly effective in treating many of the chronic conditions which resist treatment by establishment medicine -from arthritis, heart disease, and chronic pain to insomnia and attention-deficit disorders - nearly 50 percent of Americans regularly use some type of alternative therapy, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, the study found that visits to alternative practitioners, for treatments ranging from acupuncture and chiropractic to herbal remedies, outnumber all visits to primary care physicians by almost two to one. Additionally, more than 100 million Americans "regularly consume dietary supplements as a means of improving and maintaining healthy lifestyles," according to a U.S. Senator who has worked on related legislation.

Nonetheless, "alternative therapies (including acupuncture, chelation therapy, biofeedback and holistic medicine) are not covered by Medicare," says the federal government. The same is true of Medicaid. Nobody expects better coverage for alternative treatments when, as a key part of the reform legislation, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determines the "essential health benefits" that insurance plans will contain. When supporters of the legislation speak of a right to health care, they mean a right to establishment medicine.

Consumers of alternative medicine are used to health insurance plans that offer little or no coverage for holistic treatments and thus don't meet their needs. That's why many of them choose not to purchase health insurance. What they're not used to - but will have to get used to if the proposed "reforms" become law - is being forced to purchase the very insurance plans that fail to meet their needs. And therein lie the dire consequences of the impending legislation.

If you're an alternative healthcare consumer, the money you will be forced to spend subsidizing other people's establishment healthcare, through premiums and higher taxes, is money you can no longer spend on holistic and natural medicine for you and your family. It's as if the government forced you to join and pay for a food shopping club that didn't include natural food stores. After you finished paying thousands of dollars up front to the big supermarket chains you rarely if ever visit, where would you find the money for the natural food you really want?

Sure, you can lobby HHS to include a few alternative treatments as "essential health benefits" - just as you can ask the big supermarket chains to carry some natural foods - but you shouldn't have to beg to spend your money on the type of healthcare you want.

If you don't think you will be affected by the government's forced transfer of healthcare dollars from alternative to establishment medicine, consider the breadth of treatments that will be completely or partially excluded when federal bureaucrats draw up the list of essential benefits. You will be affected if you're one of the patients of America's 70,000 chiropractors, if you use an athletic trainer to treat your sports injury, of if you're a woman who would prefer to give birth at home with the help of a midwife. You'll be affected if you rely on treatments that are a traditional part of your culture or anyone else's culture, whether you seek help from Native American medicine, acupuncture and other traditional Chinese treatments, India's Ayurveda - made famous by physician Deepak Chopra - or the Latin American hueseros and sobaderos who treat traumatic and occupational injuries.

Consumers of these indigenous healing traditions are particularly vulnerable to the forced transfer of healthcare dollars because their typically modest incomes will make it difficult to pay for both their traditional medical practitioners and the new federally-mandated health insurance premiums. So much for the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendation that indigenous medicine be integrated into national healthcare programs. Instead, so many of the American politicians who pay lip service to respect for racial and cultural differences appear ready to hand the feds the power to impose a one-size-fits-all healthcare solution.

In the end, the essential point is not what the WHO recommends or whether acupuncture will be effective in relieving your chronic pain. The point is that every American deserves the right to make their own healthcare choices with their own healthcare dollars. No healthcare system will guarantee you access to every treatment you ever want - not an unregulated free market, not Medicare, not Medicaid, and certainly not "ObamaCare." But when you're allowed the freedom to make your own choices about treatments and insurance plans, you can prioritize what access is most important to you.

We all lose out when those choices are taken away, and not just in the obvious ways. With the impending diversion of money away from alternative medicine, the development of new holistic therapies that could benefit everybody will be stifled. If, instead, the Congress and President chose the path of fostering true competition in the health insurance market, insurance plans that cater more to our varied needs - including the needs of the natural medicine community - would likely bloom and expand. The increase in competition among treatments and insurance plans would put downward pressure on the high cost of establishment medicine, especially because alternative medicine typically has a lower price tag. We would all benefit.

Whether you prefer establishment medicine or are a fan of acupuncture, biofeedback, and dietary supplements, there are good reasons to share our concern about the negative impact of the impending legislation on alternative medicine and healthcare choice in general. With a final vote on the bill just days away, the time to share any concerns with your elected representatives in Washington is now.

Jim Turner is Chairman of Citizens for Health. Curt Levey is Executive Director of the Committee for Justice.

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