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Health plans reach out with new alternatives

Times Staff Writer

As many people make choices about health insurance this fall, programs offering alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage are growing in popularity. Employers say such therapies are popular with many workers, and some companies believe that providing access to alternative treatments may help curtail rising medical costs and help recruit and retain employees.

“This is completely consumer-driven,” said George DeVries, chief executive of American Specialty Health Plans Inc., a San Diego-based company that offers alternative health insurance plans to employers. “This is about what consumers are finding to be safe and effective.”

Some 47% of employees with company-sponsored health insurance had coverage for acupuncture this year, up from 33% in 2002, according to a survey of 3,000 employers released in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust. Coverage for chiropractic services rose to 87%, from 79%, the survey found.

Despite the increase in coverage, however, the range of alternative therapies available under most health plans is still limited. Many plans offer only chiropractic services, which some companies no longer even consider “alternative,” and acupuncture.

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Blue Shield of California introduced a discount program in 2003 to members seeking alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy. Members can choose from an approved list of healthcare professionals, and receive a 25% discount from the usual fee. Blue Cross of California offers similar discounts on therapies such as acupuncture and herbal supplements.

Cigna Corp. offers chiropractic and acupuncture services to employers who want such coverage for their workers, but the insurer put limits on the coverage. With acupuncture, for example, coverage is limited to a certain number of sessions for treatments that are not deemed to be “experimental.” Examples of acceptable treatments would be acupuncture used to treat nausea and vomiting for cancer patients or for women during pregnancy, said Amy Turkington, a Cigna spokeswoman.

Spokespersons at several insurers said they introduced programs providing alternative therapies because of consumer demand. Earlier this year, a survey of 31,000 adults by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the most comprehensive assessment to date of alternative medicine in the United States -- found that 36% are using some sort of “complementary and alternative” therapy. The CDC survey found that about 20% of Americans use herbal supplements, 12% use deep-breathing exercises for medical reasons and 8% practice meditation. The report also found that 5% of Americans said they practiced yoga, 5% get massages and 4% had used diet-based therapies.

One reason behind employers’ interest in alternative therapies is a growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of some of these treatments.

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While it may be awhile before health insurance covers a visit to a shaman, some companies are continuing to expand coverage of alternative therapies.

A 2003 survey of larger employers by Mercer Human Resource Consulting found that 27% of employers offered coverage for acupuncture, up from 17% in 1998, while 78% covered chiropractic services, up from 61%. The Mercer survey also found that 13% of large employers covered massage therapy, 7% offered homeopathy and 7% covered biofeedback.(These later therapies were not included in the 1998 survey.)

American Specialty Health Plans rolled out an expanded plan last summer that includes chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, and dietary counseling. An employer can pick one or all of the products. Some of the company’s plans also cover vitamins and minerals, herbal supplements, homeopathic products and nicotine-replacement therapy.

Several Los Angeles-area companies have chosen to introduce such expanded plans to their employees this fall, and have received a positive response.

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Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in Los Angeles, and Financial Partners Credit Union in Downey added coverage for chiropractic, acupuncture, massage and dietetic counseling in the last two months. Both organizations said they selected the broader plans to help recruit and retain employees in a competitive market.

“Over the past couple of years, we did everything contrary to what the medical trends were saying,” said Denise Gutches, an employee benefits consultant who works with Marlborough School. “We were expanding medical benefits because we were looking at competing for quality employees in a competitive environment, and this is where you get the bang for the buck,” she said.

Diane Jarecki, a vice president at Financial Partners, said her company hoped the new benefits would save the company money in the long run. “If you could get people to stay out of the doctor’s office, they are not going to need as many medicines,” she said. “If an employee hurts their back, they might be able to go to a chiropractor instead” of requiring pain medication or surgery.

Cost savings is often cited as a reason for including coverage of alternative treatments under employee health plans. But so far there is little actual evidence that this is true.

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DeVries said the public’s embrace of alternative therapies was changing the healthcare industry. “The new healthcare consumer is more accountable and more involved in their personal health care,” he said.


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