BY ALANA LEVENE
The Liberal National Government announced on Sunday it will reconsider a ban on private health cover for more than a dozen natural therapies — less than a week after the ban’s implementation set off an intense backlash.
The Department of Health decided to stop funding private health insurance cover for 16 natural therapies after a 2015 review found “insufficient evidence these therapies were clinically effective,” according to a spokesperson. The changes came into effect on 1 April.
Health Minister Greg Hunt reversed course over the weekend, promising a $2 million review of natural therapies including naturopathy, Western herbal medicine, kinesiology, and reflexology, among others.
“The Government has listened to the views of the sector that there is additional evidence for certain natural therapies since 2014-15,” said a statement from the Department.
“This updated review will enable formal consideration of this.”
The Commonwealth chief medical officer will lead the review, which could reinstate cover for the 47 per cent of Australians on private health insurance as early as next year.
Defending integrative medicine
Kerryn Phelps, Independent MP for the federal seat of Wentworth, was a fierce critic of the ban from its outset.
Her opposition stems from her decades of experience as a general practitioner and public health advocate.
Phelps said the government’s changes run counter to a global movement to integrate complementary therapies into healthcare systems, particularly in preventative healthcare and recovery and rehabilitation.
For example, under the NHS in the United Kingdom, the first line of therapy for lower back pain is yoga and tai chi. Under the government’s new guidelines, both are banned from getting private health cover.
“It’s not OK just to tell somebody to take painkillers or to have a surgical procedure,” Phelps said.
“As you get more experienced as a doctor, you realize that medical training prepares you for treating many patients, but not all.”
Phelps said the new legislation reduces patient choice and could lead people to make improvised and uninformed decisions.
“The problem is that if you remove the modalities like qualified naturopaths, then people just start buying over-the-counter supplements and making it up themselves,” Phelps said. “I believe in guided self-care, and we’re taking away the guides.”
Phelps wrote to Minister Hunt in late March, asking that yoga, tai chi, Western herbal medicine, pilates, and naturopathy be removed from the list of therapies denied subsidies.
These modalities have a sufficient evidence base, Phelps said, and shouldn’t be grouped with others like aromatherapy, Bowen therapy and iridology.
Phelps said the ban should be reversed while the review is in progress.
Groups including Friends of Science and Medicine (FSM), led by medical professor John Dwyer, have lobbied in favour of the cover ban.
It’s not that FSM doesn’t see the health value in yoga, Dwyer said. They do, but a lot of other things, like going to the gym, are also beneficial.
Since there is no evidence that yoga and tai chi can treat specific diseases, the doctor explained, “precious” healthcare dollars should not be spent subsidising them.
“The bottom line is that the millions of dollars that the government was spending would be much better spent on other things that are likely to benefit patients,” he said.
Dwyer also criticised integrative medicine doctors, who he said “aren’t being rigid about trying to stick to scientific evidence-based care.”
Naturopath two-hour visit
Two years ago, Kate McHound was exhausted. She couldn’t lose weight. She traveled from GP to GP, looking for answers.
Two months ago, a female GP said that her symptoms are “just part of being a woman”.
McHound, who lives in the Blue Mountains, decided to visit a naturopath, who ran full thyroid panels, diagnosed McHound with thyroid disease, and referred her to a new GP, who “actually paid attention” to her symptoms.
“GPs just generally don’t have the time to go through everything and all symptoms in a 15-minute or even 30-minute appointment,” McHound said. “My first naturopath visit was two hours, and we went over everything.”
McHound now works with her naturopath and GP to work out better thyroid medication protocols, nutritional supplements, and supportive herbal medicine.
“If I kept going back to my original GP, I’d still be getting nowhere,” McHound said.
When she found out about the government’s weekend announcement, McHound was doubtful that the ban would be reversed.
Even if it is, she won’t be able to claim rebates from NIB anymore for naturopath visits in the meantime.