Not all medical insurers cover natural cures

The Georgia Straight: Health Features

Many users of alternative medicine—such as Nicole Germain, who takes herbs to control her asthma—want insurance plans to broaden their reach.

By Carlito Pablo, April 30, 2009

droppedImage (1)After carrying a puffer for 10 years, Nicole Germain decided to try herbal medicine to deal with her asthma. The herbs came in small packages that she soaked in hot water and drank like tea every day. The potion didn’t taste very good, but according to the 39-year-old Vancouverite, after about nine months her asthma was gone. [Germain self-identified as a client of Dr. Peter Wood, Dr.TCM, who practices out of Qi Integrated Health; this fact was omitted in the printed version of the article.]

Until last summer, Germain couldn’t ride her bike very far from her Kitsilano residence without starting to wheeze. She has since gone on longer rides in North Vancouver and Victoria and on Bowen Island.

Germain paid for the herbal preparations out of her own pocket. It cost her $50 to $60 every two weeks because the preparations aren’t covered by the provincial government’s PharmaCare program. From the point of view of Germain, who swears herbal medicine worked a miracle for her, this policy should change.

Instead of paying for a stupid puffer, the government should pay attention to herbs,” Germain told the Georgia Straight.

Herbal remedies are part of a diverse group of medical and health-care systems that lie outside the realm of conventional medicine. Collectively called alternative and complementary medicine, they include acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage therapies.

The premium-assistance program of B.C.’s Medical Services Plan does provide coverage for the latter three types of treatment. Some extended health plans for groups offered by private insurance companies also cover them.

Peter Wood, president of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Association of B.C., believes that it’s just a matter of time before the issue of coverage for herbal preparations comes to the forefront of health debates.

“There are specific herbs for treating asthma or treating diabetes,” Wood told the Straight. “Any condition that you could think of, there are herbs to treat it. It’s just a matter of whether a person sticks to the protocol.”

Of the approximately 1,200 practitioners registered with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of B.C., a regulatory authority established by the province in 1996, about half are licensed to prescribe herbs, according to Wood.

In May 2007, the Fraser Institute released the results of a nationwide survey it commissioned on the use of complementary and alternative medicine. The report noted that 54 percent of Canadians had used at least one form of alternative or complementary therapy in the year prior to the survey, a four-percent increase from the 50-percent level observed in 1997.

The report, titled “Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Canada: Trends in Use and Public Attitudes, 1997–2006”, listed the most commonly used alternative therapies in 2006: massage (19 percent), prayer (16 percent), chiropractic care (15 percent), relaxation techniques (14 percent), and herbal therapies (10 percent).

According to the report, Canadians spent about $7.8 billion on complementary and alternative medicine during a 12-month period in 2005–06, and about $923 million in 2006 on herbs and vitamins.

The Calgary-based author of the report, Nadeem Esmail, is the Fraser Institute’s director of health-system performance studies. Esmail notes that a majority of the Canadians surveyed in 2006 stated that complementary and alternative medicine should be covered privately and not included in provincial health plans.

“When it comes to private or extended insurance, that’s really a private-contracting issue, and if people wanted that or are willing to buy insurance [for herbal medicines], I’m sure we would see companies focusing on that and trying to deliver that service,” Esmail told the Straight by phone.

As noted by Wendy Hope, vice president of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, extended health plans cover prescription-drug items that have a drug identification number, which is a requirement for coverage. Natural health products are another matter.

“Whether coverage would be available would be determined by the plan sponsor’s arrangements with the insurance company,” Hope told the Straight. “It is not common to provide plan coverage for these items.”

This creates a challenge for natural-health practitioners and their clients. Judy Zhu has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine in Vancouver for about nine years, and she has met only one patient whose extended health plan covered herbal medicine.

“These days, more and more people are using herbal medicine to improve their health,” Zhu told the Straight. “Acupuncture and herbal medicine work together. It is kind of frustrating for some patients how herbal medicine is not covered.”

Jaime De La Barrera practices western herbal medicine out of his Vancouver clinic on Main Street. He explained that western and Chinese herbal preparations share common plant sources, such as licorice for treating lung and respiratory conditions.

“The people should have the right to decide which way they want to treat their conditions, and this should be covered by some type of insurance,” De La Barrera told the Straight.

Another way to ease the cost of using herbal remedies would be through tax write-offs, according to Larry Chan, cofounder of Integrative Healing Arts, a holistic health clinic in Vancouver.

“When people are taking that alternative approach, they’re actually sparing the medical plans of excessive costs for drugs, especially for senior citizens,” Chan told the Straight. “At least they should have the ability to write off the cost of it, versus taking the brunt of the payment themselves.”