One of the main drivers of the push for healthcare reform is the soaring cost of health insurance. As affordable health insurance becomes harder to find, more people are deciding that the current system needs fixing. Some blame the higher cost of premiums on private insurers’ profit margins or increasing obesity rates in America. These factors certainly play a part; however, the primary explanation could be an expansion of the services health insurance plans cover. An increasing number of insurance companies now cover alternative medicine. Alternative treatments include herbs, acupuncture, and chiropractic. Insurers claim that they are simply responding to consumer demand, but is their coverage of such largely unproven treatments increasing healthcare costs for everyone?
Over the past several decades, alternative medicine has become mainstream. Millions of Americans rely on it to treat conditions that they feel the mainstream medical establishment hasn’t effectively dealt with. They’ve had to pay for the entire cost of their treatment out of pocket until recently. Aetna and Kaiser Permanente are among the health insurers that have begun picking up most of the tab. The usage of alternative services will probably rise, since patients only have an inexpensive co-payment. While that’s a great savings for consumers of alternative therapies, it might be driving up the cost of insurance for everyone else.
Under certain circumstances, studies have shown alternative medicine to be effective. Despite that, the majority of alternative medicine treatments haven’t yet been shown to work. On the other hand, most conventional treatment has undergone years of scientific testing. Visiting a chiropractor instead of a doctor might make economic sense if you have back pain, but not if you’re suffering from an ear infection. If a patient finds alternative medicine ineffective and then turns to conventional medicine, their health insurance plan will have to pay twice to treat the same condition. Using alternative remedies, such as herbal dietary supplements, as opposed to standard prescription drugs may even worsen a patient’s health. Take this hypothetical example: a patient with high cholesterol is prescribed Lipitor, but instead chooses to take red yeast rice supplements (which are marketed to treat the same condition). The latter supplements are most likely harmless in and of themselves. However, if the patient uses them in lieu of the proven Lipitor, he or she probably won’t be treating the underlying condition. As a result, his/her condition may worsen and even lead to a heart attack or stroke. His or her insurer will then be responsible for the subsequent care, which would be far more expensive compared to the initial treatment. That’s an example of the waste plaguing our healthcare system.
Some groups are lobbying to include alternative medicine coverage in the nation’s healthcare reform bill, because they believe excluding those practitioners amounts to discrimination. Doing so would make the bill even more costly. Democrats are calling for a public option in part to maximize efficiency and effectiveness of care; such a requirement would probably defeat the purpose. Although a third of Americans have used some form of alternative medicine, it is very doubtful Congress will mandate its coverage. Republican politicians could take advantage of the supporters of alternative health treatments, and use them as an example of the horrors of rationed health care. The only issue with that strategy is that the Republican party is against the federal government giving for-profit health insurance companies any type of mandate regarding what they cannot refuse to cover (e.g. the provision in the Democrats’ bill that would forbid insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions). Rather, they believe insurers should be allowed to sell whatever health insurance plans they choose on the free market.