"It's time to end the discrimination against alternative healthcare practices,'' Harkin said at a congressional hearing.
Backers of the amendment say it could save tens of billions of dollars in the long run by providing less expensive and better alternatives to drugs and surgery in a variety of cases. The amendment was adopted by a Senate committee writing health legislation, but details are still being negotiated.
More than a third of American adults and 12% of children use these treatments, according to an NIH and CDC survey that included meditation, yoga and deep breathing exercises in addition to types we mentioned earlier, Shirley S. Wang writes in Washington Post.
With hundreds of disciplines falling under the general category of alternative medicine, and with a variety of sometimes-conflicting studies about their effectiveness, there is much disagreement about the value of including such providers in a national health insurance program.
State by state, there is a wide disparity of coverage of alternative medicine. For example, Massachusetts licenses acupuncturists, and many health insurance plans cover the service, but most do so only on a limited basis, by restricting the number of visits or the dollar amount of coverage.
Forty-four states license acupuncturists. Fifteen states, not including Massachusetts, license naturopathic physicians, who use natural remedies in their treatment.
The federal government too has become increasingly involved in the field, funding the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and states are increasingly being lobbied by providers to receive formal approval for the field.
Some nursing homes have bought into the concept. They are using massage therapy to calm agitated patients rather than using powerful antipsychotic drugs that have a slew of side effects.
At the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, traditional treatment is complemented by acupuncture and massage therapy as well as counseling on mind-body techniques to reduce stress. For example, acupuncture has proved beneficial to reduce nausea from chemotherapy, according to the center's co-clinical director, Dr. David Rosenthal.
"We have a tendency to treat drug symptoms with another drug. We are looking at trying to find nonpharmalogical approaches,'' Rosenthal said.
Shiva Barton of Winchester, a naturopath of Massachusetts talks with patients about lifestyle changes, stress reduction techniques, vitamins, minerals, herbal agents, acupuncture, and homeopathic remedies.
He said that naturopaths and other practitioners of alternative medicine are discriminated against by a system that is dominated by well-financed lobbies for medical doctors who don't want competition.
But the American Medical Association says there is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative practices. "Much of the information currently known about these therapies makes it clear that many have not been shown to be efficacious,'' the association said in a policy statement. The association denies that it is trying to stifle competition and says it is only trying to ensure that medicine is based on science.
Proponents of mind-body wellness and related stress-reduction techniques also want to be included as care providers in the legislation, Michael Kranish reports for Boston Globe.
Whatever the fate of the amendment, merely the fact that it is pushed by a number of senators has been greeted as a breakthrough by supporters of alternative medicine.