From acupuncture to herbal supplements, alternative medicine is on the rise in the United States. Americans spend $34 billion out-of-pocket on alternative treatments per year and nearly 40 percent of American adults are using alternative therapies.
Despite the fact that most alternative treatments are not covered by insurance, these practices are here to stay. As study after study validates their promises, alternative therapies are making their way into conventional hospitals and medical school curriculums.
With alternative medicine entering the mainstream, a question arises: At what point does the unconventional become conventional enough to be covered by insurance? Will a more progressive healthcare system also mean progressive insurance policies that include alternative therapies?
What are alternative therapies?
Alternative therapies include acupuncture, ayurveda, biofeedback, chiropractic treatment, deep breathing, homeopathy, hypnosis, massage, meditation, natural products, naturopathy, yoga and more. The top 3 alternative therapies in 2007 included “natural products” (fish oil being the most widely used), deep breathing, and meditation, respectively.
Although 50 years ago these treatments were considered “woo woo,” today many are gaining traction and viability in the public sphere thanks to new studies. For example, meditation has now been found to improve cognitive function by literally increasing the concentration of gray matter in the brain. Plus, meditation shows promise for treating pain and some disorders, with studies suggesting it to be at least as effective as prescription medication and cognitive behavior therapy for addiction, anxiety and depression.
How is alternative medicine covered today?
In 2005, the National Academies of Science found that insurance companies were increasingly beginning to cover alternative medicine. Yet today, more than 10 years later, few alternative therapies are covered. According to Dr. Sarah Bennett, a naturopathic doctor from Natural Med Doc, insurers are most likely to cover practices that are both considered medically necessary and have been backed by sufficient scientific research.
The following are the percentages of firms that cover certain alternative therapies, as compiled by QuoteWizard:
- Massage therapy: 17 percent (often only if physical therapy and medication haven’t helped)
- Chiropractic care: 91 percent
- Acupuncture: 32 percent
- Homeopathy: 11 percent
Beyond this list, coverage of alternative treatments is rare. When insurance policies do include these treatments, they typically limit the number of visits or require proof that the treatment is medically necessary. Whether naturopathic doctor visits are covered is highly dependent on the state and insurance plan.
What is Healthcare for All?
In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared health a basic human right.
Since then, the world has experienced an increasing demand for universal healthcare, meaning that everyone, whether or not they can afford to pay for it, would have access to essential health services. As of 2018, 58 countries, including all developed countries except the United States, have delivered some form of universal health care.
19 countries including Canada, Norway, Japan and the United Kingdom achieve this using a single-payer system. Under the single-payer system, the government can either provide all healthcare services or provide insurance coverage and allow private companies to provide the care.
Under other systems, such as in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, there is a combination of state and private participants. Germany’s multi-payer model requires people to purchase private insurance coverage. This is funded through progressive taxation based on need rather than ability to pay, requiring citizens to have health insurance but offering over 100 private insurers to choose from.
In the United States, 2020 democratic presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker have indicated support for a single payer system. With “Healthcare for All” a real possibility in our country’s future, where would alternative medicine fit in?
Will alternative medicine be included in Healthcare for All?
To determine how alternative medicine might fit into Healthcare for All, it is useful to consider how other countries have incorporated alternative medicine into their universal healthcare plans.
In Canada, coverage for alternative therapies depends on the state but is generally restrictive. Like Americans, many Canadians use alternative medicine but pay out-of-pocket for it. In Germany, although 77% of clinics provide acupuncture, alternative treatments are usually only covered when standard treatments produce detrimental side effects, when they are cheaper than conventional treatments, or when there is no other treatment option available. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) website states that the “availability of [complementary and alternative medicine] on the NHS is limited, and in most cases the NHS will not offer such treatments.”
As indicated by Canada, Germany and the UK, a progressive healthcare system does not necessarily indicate coverage of alternative treatments.
In the United States, the availability of alternative therapies under Healthcare for All may depend on several factors as of yet undetermined, such as how the plan is rolled out. For example, if all hospitals become government-owned in a socialized model, the variety of doctors and treatments to choose from may decrease, therefore potentially also decreasing the variety of alternative health practitioners and treatments covered. However, a single- or multi-payer system would not necessarily have a significant impact on the variety of treatment options.
Whether Healthcare for All will directly impact coverage of alternative medicine or not is uncertain. More likely, the increased adoption of these therapies by the mainstream will be a significant factor to increase coverage.
Plus, thanks to the continued study of alternative therapies, many of these treatments will no longer be considered “alternative” at all. Instead, science and consumer demand will pave the way for alternative therapies to earn their place in mainstream medicine as a part of an integrative approach to health and wellness.
For more on healthcare in the U.S., check out our other recent post: How Healthcare Costs are Affecting Americans This Year.
Katherine (Tori) Lutz is a graduate of Florida State University and current student at Columbia University. Professionally, she has a great deal of writing and editing experience, particularly in the health field with the help of experienced doctors like Dr. Sarah Bennett. She currently lives in New York City and spends her free time reading and dining with friends.