Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard care. Standard care is what medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and allied health professionals, such as nurses and physical therapists, practice.
Above is the standard definition of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Also called “CAM” for short. Essentially this term refers to anything that is outside standard western allopathic medicine. It encompasses everything from Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine to Naturopathic care, homeopathy, massage, reiki, shiatsu, energy medicine, ayurveda and on and on and on.
When I hear this term, Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it always makes my skin prickle a little bit. As an Acupuncturist, I don’t find it offensive per se, but I can’t help but liken it to the term “oriental” as understood by Edward Said. This sense that by the very nature of the term, we are holding CAM therapies afar and making them “other” in a way that puts them at odds with standard care, when really there is a beautiful synergy possible between these approaches.
So today I want talk about the what and why of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in hopes of dispelling this sense of “otherness.” As an Acupuncturist, my focus is on Chinese Medicine, but my hope is to help you understand that CAM therapies do not have to be “other,” “in lieu of” or opposite to standard care.
They represent a different paradigm, a different approach, a safe and successful subset of options that can add to standard care in most cases when desired. AND that by working together, standard care and Complementary Medicine (my proposed term revision!) provide the broadest and most complete healthcare solution around.
What is Considered Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
As mentioned above, CAM is this huge category for everything other than Western Allopathic Medicine. Here is a short list of “what” is considered part of this category and some basic explanations of what to expect from each:
Why Choose Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
Complementary Medicine is quite varied and has many strengths. Often times people turn to it when they feel Western Medicine has failed them, but it has so many more applications. Certainly there are many things standard care can treat that CAM therapies can treat as well just in a different or more natural way - such as pain, injury recovery, low immunity, recovering from colds and flus, menstrual irregularities, fertility, weight loss, metabolism etc - but it can ALSO serve to improve your sense of wellbeing and help you maintain a state of optimal health.
Indeed, you will note that the central and overarching similarities between the Complementary therapies listed above, is the holistic approach (mind, body, lifestyle) and the focus on health, wellness and wellbeing rather than illness and disease. While each method has its own therapies and course of treatment to heal illness and correct imbalance, the ultimate goal is reach a plateau of health and, through continued monitoring and maintenance, to keep you there.
This is certainly true of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Indeed, thousands of years ago the neighborhood doc was paid on a retainer because his job was to keep you healthy. This meant regular sessions to evaluate your body energetically and minute corrections to keep you there. I often think of Chinese Medicine as the most traditional science of wellbeing around, and certainly this is what I strive for in my practice - to help my patients achieve the state of health they want, and to support them through herbs, diet and lifestyle to keep them there.
In this way, I believe Complementary Medicine is ideally suited to Western culture and uniquely positioned to support Standard Medicine. While Standard medicine advocates for “preventative care,” a physical exam (i.e. preventative care according to standard medicine) is only covered by insurance once every 1-3 years! A lot can happen in 1-3 years. Indeed, a lot can happen to your health in 1-3 months, especially if you are under stress. Even after a health event which lands you in the hospital, after a prescribed course of follow up treatments to address disease, there is often little to no support for wellness and wellbeing thereafter in the standard care allopathic medical system.
This is where Complementary and Alternative Medicine has a perfect synergy with Standard Medicine. Just because the approach of CAM is different, doesn’t mean that it discounts standard care by any means nor that it has to be an “alternative” or other than. It simply means looking at the problem from a different angle to find the best personalized solution for you. The best solution for you may be CAM treatment only or standard care only, but for most people that are willing to broaden their view, the best solution is a combination of each based on your individual needs and health goals.
Cancer treatment is a perfect example. Breast Cancer in particular is an illness we have become rather efficient at treating now, and something that is not to be messed around with or taken lightly. By combining standard care, including removal of the tumor and chemotherapy and radiation as advised based on stage and quality of life concerns, with Acupuncture in particular to decrease post chemotherapy related nausea and pain related to tumor location and surgery, patients get better faster and can take fewer pharmaceuticals to manage symptoms in recovery. This leads to improved outcomes, improved comfort and rapid healing - a win win situation for those that choose to engage in this powerful combination of therapies
I hope I have been able to adequately convey the power of using both standard care and complementary medicine in turn, and to share with you my powerful belief that they both have an important place together!
I also hope that if you are looking to optimize your health and wellness, that you will consider looking into some “complementary medicine” options if you haven’t before. They are powerful, safe, relaxing and can truly improve wellbeing on many levels and prevent illness and injury.
Until next time, thanks for tuning in!
One of the most common conversations I have with new patients over the phone goes something like this:
Inquiring mind over the phone, “Does insurance cover Acupuncture?”
Rebecca, “Yes! In fact over 60% of my patients have insurance that covers treatment.”
Inquiring Mind, “REALLY??!! Does MY insurance cover Acupuncture?”
Rebecca, “I don’t know, but let’s find out!”
And quite commonly, patients DO have coverage! Here in Portland we are extremely lucky. Indeed, as the conversation above illuminates, over 60% of my patients actually have insurance that covers Acupuncture. These patients are typically responsible for a $10-$20 copayment at time of service and nothing else, the rest of their treatment is covered 100%.
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, more people have Acupuncture coverage than EVER before but many people don’t realize it or don’t know how to utilize their benefits. In Washington in particular, 12 Acupuncture visits per year are included in the state essential benefits plan, meaning that all insurance plans originating in Washington State include Acupuncture benefits.
Understanding insurance benefits can be very confusing, however, so today, in an effort to help you understand your insurance, I’m going to walk you through how to determine if you have Acupuncture coverage, how to get Acupuncture coverage, and some insurance terminology basics to help you navigate the tangled web of coverage insurance companies weave.
How to Determine if You Have Acupuncture Coverage
Finding out if you have Acupuncture coverage is quite simple, but finding out what is covered can be hard if you don’t know the right questions to ask. Acupuncture isn’t always covered for everything - despite the 3,000 years of history behind it.
Here is a simple step by step guide to finding out all the pertinent information about Acupuncture benefits under your insurance plan. Have a piece of paper and a pen ready to record your answers:
Acupuncture is NOT Covered Under My Plan! How Do I Get Benefits?
Not every insurance plan will cover Acupuncture, but if yours doesn’t and you want to get Acupuncture treatment don’t fret - there are options. First, of course, you need to determine if Acupuncture coverage would be more cost effective than paying out of pocket.
The average 60 minute Acupuncture treatment costs somewhere between $65-$90 in the Portland area (might be different in your town, a quick web search will yield results). An average course of treatment is probably 6 treatments for any individual illness, 12 on the high end. 12 treatments at a $75 average = $900 per illness or injury, so if you’re paying more than that per year for extra insurance coverage you’re probably wasting your money and would be better served by paying out of pocket.
If you utilize other services, like Chiropractic and Naturopathic treatment as well, or if you intend for Acupuncture to be part of your regular wellness and stress management care (it should be!), then paying more in premiums would be worth it since CAM services are often combined.
If you want coverage and you don’t have it, therefore, you have two basic options:
1. Purchase additional or secondary insurance coverage
2. Lobby your HR department to add Acupuncture as a covered benefit for an employer-provided health insurance plan.
If you want to purchase additional or secondary coverage, the first thing to do is to call Member Services for your current insurer and ask about options. They may have an additional rider you can purchase which will add more benefits to your current plan for a monthly premium. If they don’t, you can go to the Healthcare Exchange and purchase a secondary plan. I compiled a list of plans from the Cover Oregon site which cover Acupuncture back in October which you can review on my blog HERE.
Purchasing a secondary insurance plan can be costly, however, so you have to think about your healthcare needs and choose wisely. Secondary coverage that compliments your current plan benefits can often result in almost never paying for any treatment for anything - whatever isn’t covered by your primary insurance can be billed through to your secondary insurance plan and will likely be covered - but premiums can be high on individual plans, so do your math carefully.
If you are insured through your employer, lobbying for Acupuncture benefits to be added to the company plan is your best option to get care. If you can get other people in your office to toot the Alternative Medicine Coverage horn, all the better. Your employer wants to keep you happy (or they should anyway!) and Acupuncture is great way to do so! People that utilize CAM services such as Acupuncture, Massage, Chiropractic and Naturopathic care are generally more aware of and engaged in their health, and healthier people have lower premiums for group health insurance. This is a big benefit to your employer because it means they are going to pay less to insure you over time because you will be healthier (are you taking notes to bring to HR yet?…)
Acupuncture in particular has been proven to reduce blood pressure, assist in weight loss and reduce stress hormones in the blood stream - all common concerns in an office environment. Acupuncture coverage, if utilized therefore, is a big benefit for employees and employers alike.
If you need help making the case for Acupuncture coverage in your office, contact me! Or your local Acupuncturist for some specific key words and phrases to bring to your HR department.
Understanding the Basics of Insurance Terminology
Insurance is about the using the money of the many to cover the needs of the few. Everyone pays premiums, but only those in need seek care requiring the insurance companies to pay up, and in this way the insurance company can make sure there are funds available as needed for everyone. Or at least that is the theory. Its a balancing system, a balancing act, and a darn confusing bunch of jargon and terminology.
The most confusing part of accessing benefits for most people is understanding their deductible. Some benefits are subject to deductible, meaning the deducible must be met before the benefit will kick in, while other benefits are not subject to deductible, which means you can access the benefits immediately and are only responsible for a copay or coinsurance amount whether you have met your deductible or not. This is where most people get confused about Acupuncture and alternative care benefits in particular, because this is very individual plan by plan.
For example: if Acupuncture is a covered benefit but is subject to deductible, you must meet your deductible - meaning you must pay for that dollar value worth of medical services (any covered medical services) before your benefits will kick in. If Acupuncture is not subject to deductible, it doesn’t matter what your deductible is or whether you have one or not, Acupuncture treatment will be covered immediately at your copayment or coinsurance rate.
Here is a list of the insurance terminology that people find most confusing and what it means for your benefits:
Deductible - this is a dollar amount you must meet out of pocket before certain benefits “kick in.” There is typically a separate deductible for “in network” and for “out of network” providers. For example, if you have a $500 in network deductible and then a coinsurance of 20%, you would be required to pay $500 worth of medical expenses (doctor visit fees, lab fees, etc) for in network services out of pocket at the start of the plan year. Once that value had been met, you would only be responsible for 20% of the fee charged for any visit or service.
In Network vs. Out Of Network - In Network providers (doctors, hospitals, medical professionals) have contracted with the insurance company and provide reduced rates to plan members. Out of Network providers have not contracted with the insurance company and can charge whatever they want.
Coinsurance - Coinsurance is the percentage of total (contract rate for in network) fees you, as the patient, are responsible for paying. It is often different in network vs. out of network. Benefits which have a coinsurance amount due are usually subject to deductible, meaning you must meet the deductible first before you can pay only the coinsurance amount.
Copayment - this is a flat dollar value that you are responsible for paying for treatment. It is often different in network vs. out of network, or you will have a copayment in network and a coinsurance out of network. Benefits which have a copayment are usually not subject to deductible, meaning you can access that benefit immediately without meeting any deductible amount for the plan year.
Plan Year - the date on which your insurance benefits reset, meaning the date you are responsible for meeting your deductible again. Insurance plans run on 12 month cycles and the plan year is usually the same as the calendar year, but can vary with some insurers.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine or “CAM” Services - This generally refers to Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Massage and Naturopathic care. Sometimes these services are bundled into a single category meaning you have one benefit pool to share among them. Physical Therapy is always separate from CAM services, and Chiropractic is often singled out as a separate benefit as well.
Authorization - Some benefits require authorization before they can be utilized. Services that require authorization typically require the provider him or herself to seek authorization on or before your first visit for treatment. If not authorized, the insurance company will not pay for treatment.
Referral - Some benefits require a referral, typically from your PCP or Primary Care Provider, before the insurance company will pay for them. In Oregon an MD, DO (Doctor of Osteopathy), ND (Naturopathic Doctor) or DC (Doctor of Chiropractic) can be a Primary Care Physician, but an ND or DC must be covered under your specific insurance plan despite state law to be recognized as a referral party.
Contact Rebecca with Questions
Insurance can be confusing, but with a little know how and a provider who knows the ropes on your side, everything can be understood and clarified with ease. If you have questions about your insurance plan, contact me via email anytime or book a free consultation online. I am happy to help navigate your benefits!
Until next time,
The Affordable Care Act or ACA has been constantly in the news since October last year when the (largely faulty) exchange websites went live. Yes, the health care exchange rollout has been fraught with difficulty and enrollment has been challenging, but despite these issues, I personally feel the Affordable Care Act is an amazing success - over a million uninsured Americans have signed up for coverage already! It is truly is a landmark piece of legislation not only for America as a whole, but for Acupuncturists in particular.
Though insurance companies have been able to extend existing plans a little longer due to the 2 year grace period the feds announced last week, under the Affordable Care Act more people have access to Acupuncture and alternative medicine coverage in the United States than ever before. Under ACA, alternative medicine is poised to thrive because:
As to the last clause above, this kind of research is being done slowly but surely in Europe and has resulted in some great advances for Acupuncturists in Germany in particular. A study on back pain and knee arthritis called The German Acupuncture Trials showed that Acupuncture and standard care both resulted in approximately the same outcome. Subsequently, Acupuncture is now covered by socialized German healthcare for these conditions.
More studies like this conducted in (and therefore recognized by) the U.S. will result in everyone making better decisions about medical intervention at various stages. If you had a choice between arthroscopic knee surgery for osteoarthritis ($50,000 price tag) and acupuncture (6-12 visits at $70 each) which would you, and your insurance company, choose knowing the outcome would be approximately the same? Acupuncture is the clear winner for the average case - less expensive, less invasive, virtually risk free, natural and research-proven to be effective!
An Acupuncturists Perspective on the Affordable Care Act
From an Acupuncturists perspective, these things are a big win for our industry. The Affordable Care Act has resulted in increased access to Acupuncture by
The Affordable Care Act is an incredible first step towards something desperately needed in our country - true health care access for all as a national right. Is it perfect? Not quite. Is it going to continue to go through changes in the coming years? Undoubtedly. But the standard has been set and (hopefully!) there’s no going back now.
Wondering if your insurance covers Acupuncture? I’m always happy to check benefits for potential patients, so if you want to check your benefits please email me your name, date of birth and health insurance information and I’ll be happy to verify your benefits before your first visit or consultation!
Until next time,
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.