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When will insurers pay for alternative medicine?

After reading recent media reports such as The Seattle Times series, “Methadone and the politics of pain,” I’ve been saddened to learn of the overwhelming number of Washington residents living in chronic pain and/or addicted to painkillers.  Also, the near universal frustration of both patients and providers for solutions is alarming.

I’m sure that all caring persons agree that no one should ever be left in agonizing pain, but is increasing dependence on painkillers the only answer?

Why is this largely an American problem?  With less than 5% of the world’s population, Americans consume 80% of painkillers sold. A recent comment on the Times website noted, “I just worked in Cuba. There (are) NO narcotics except for a couple of doses after major surgery. Tylenol is over the counter and ibuprofen by prescription. Somehow they manage and they have a lot less pain. Consider that paradox? They have no pain medicines and have less pain?”  

I’ve been encouraged to hear that some patients are managing to get off painkillers, including Cynthia Toussaint.  According to an ABC News report, she “was confined to her bed, writhing in pain from muscle spasms, unable to walk or to live a meaningful life.” Yet, ten years later, after turning to a variety of integrative medicine treatments, she resumed her singing career. Toussaint noted, “There’s a whole range of under-appreciated non-traditional treatment options that are low-cost, effective, and with no side effects.” 

A recent article in The St. Petersburg Times explains how addiction to prescription painkillers nearly killed ex-NFL star Randy Grimes. Yet, at a point that Grimes describes as “a spiritual moment,” he began to regain control of his life, found renewed purpose, and now works to help others to overcome the same addiction. Throughout my entire life, I’ve taken a spiritual approach to my own health and have experienced consistent, positive results.  

It’s also encouraging to read reports on therapeutic approaches that focus on thought and the mind in reducing pain. Studies at Stanford, Duke, and Wake Forest Universities have proven the effectiveness of many mind-body approaches in clinical trials.

One reason alternative therapies are not more commonly used by the public appears to be the lack of insurance coverage. According to The Seattle Times, Rep. Jim Moeller believes it is “unfortunate” that Medicaid covers narcotic painkillers, but not alternative treatments. However, there are signs this may be changing. A recent press release announced that, starting in July of 2012, the 13,000 employees of Maricopa County, AZ will have the option of an integrative approach “that embodies the philosophy and practice of healing oriented medicine, addressing mind, body, and spirit.” 

Specialists who work with patients dealing with pain have told me they support expanding health coverage to include alternative therapies that are less obtrusive and generally more affordable. 

On Dec. 16, the Obama administration surprised many by declaring that each state will now be allowed to have greater freedom in what their respective health exchanges will include. This may be a unique opportunity to include alternative treatments, especially the treatments that already qualify as medical expense deductions for federal income tax purposes. Including alternative therapies in health insurance will make them more accessible to patients, who may be struggling to find better ways to manage their pain.   

This article first appeared on Blogcritics.

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