New law asks state to study use of alternative medicine

Purple coneflower
A purple coneflower, also known as echinacea.
MPR Photo/Kate Smith

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, is a state lawmaker. He's also a chiropractor, who believes it's time for the state to recognize the potential of health therapies that are frequently less-invasive and sometimes more effective than western medical treatments.

He says many patients discover the benefit non-traditional therapies once they've they've exhausted conventional medical options.

"Their problem may be actually relatively simple or there's an idea that hasn't been thought of," says Abeler. "And they get some major benefit to their condition or get well, often in reasonable and short amounts of time."

Usually patients pay for alternative and complementary therapies out of their own pockets since many insurance policies don't cover them. Coverage for chiropractic care and even acupuncture are becoming more common.

Abeler says there's not much lawmakers can do to change coverage in the private insurance market. But he says lawmakers can influence the state's publicly-funded insurance programs.

That's why he authored a bill in the House this session requiring the state to take a closer look at alternative medicine for its MinnesotaCare, Medical Assistance and General Assistance Medical Care programs.

"I expect to see significant savings. You know, I think you could save 10, 20-percent."

Abeler says the state spends an enormous amount of money on health care for these clients. But he believes adding alternative care to the mix would actually save money.

"I expect to see significant savings. I think you could save 10, 20-percent," he says.

"And I think in terms of cost which is driving people out of the health care market you know where they can't get care because they just can't afford it, this is I think offers one of the best single things of any that I've seen."

Whether the state will save money on alternative care is an open question. Dr. David Luehr, President of the Minnesota Medical Association says the group hasn't taken a position on the new law. But Luehr says he suspects that many people will simply add alternative care therapies onto their regular medical treatments rather than substituting one for the other.

"I guess I think of massage therapy," he says. "We would all feel great having a massage on a regular basis. But the total benefit and the cost-benefit to that, to our long-term health care, may not be worth it at this time."

Luehr says there isn't adequate funding for many basic health care needs in Minnesota as it is. He says if the state decides to cover alternative therapies, it's vital that those treatments have a sound evidence that supports their effectiveness.

The new law does recommend that the state give priority to evidence-based therapies. That type of scientific credibility has often been lacking among the estimated 1800 alternative and complementary therapies on the market.

But Mary Jo Kreitzer says that's changing. She's director of the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.

"There's been a tidal wave of both consumer interest as well as a growing body of evidence to show that many of these approaches are safe, effective, that they make sense to do," she says.

For instance, Kreitzer says, there's strong evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for migraine headaches, chronic pain and degenerative joint disease. She says making this and other alternative therapies available to all Minnesotans is a matter of fairness.

"I think what this legislation attempts to do is to create a more level playing field," says Kreitzer. "If there are therapeutic approaches that are safe and that are effective and they potentially are going to save money, why not make them more widely available to people who can't afford to pay out of pocket?"

Kreitzer says there is no way to know how much money could be saved through alternative and complementary therapies. But she says wellness is a major tenet of the approach. So if people learn to take better care of themselves, she thinks it's reasonable to presume that their health care costs will go down.

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