As a high school teacher, it's Lilly Estella's job to open her students' minds to new ideas. That is exactly what she herself did when it was suggested she use ancient Chinese treatments for a medical problem.
"I approached Eastern medicine with a skeptical eye and I really didn't believe in it but I became a believer very quickly," says Estella.
In fact, acupuncture and Chinese herbs worked so well for her gynecological problems, she prefers them to more modern treatments. But her health insurer won't pay for alternative medicine.
"I have two physical ailments, both of which could be easily treated for a minimal amount of money with no invasive procedures. Instead, my health care provider is offering me surgery," says Estella.
But across the country, the tide is starting to turn, with 4 of out 10 Americans saying they'd be more likely to use alternative treatments than traditional Western medicine. With a $27 billion market at stake, HMOs are getting into the alternative medicine game, doubling coverage in just the past 4 years.
"People are demanding it. It appears to meet their needs. There is a lot of evidence that it may decrease the overall cost of health care," says Alan Zwerner, vice president of Healthnet of California.
The trend toward coverage is due in part to the aging baby boom population, willing to experiment with simple, low cost treatments to help old problems. They are a potent economic force for managed care providers, eager to enroll new members and collect more premiums.
"The very fact that insurance companies -- managed care companies -- are now willing to pay for those services gives them legitimacy. But it also subjects them to the light of day and to prove in the long run that they're safe and they work," says Zwerner.
While some people welcome the money and recognition that comes with insurance coverage, David Lee thinks it's a bad mix. As the executive director of one of the largest schools of Eastern medicine in the U.S., he's worried it will suffer under managed care.
"The greatest danger for me is that people who don't understand the medicine will have greater control of it," says Lee. "If they say that acupuncturist need to only see a patient every 7 minutes and they can treat only certain symptomsÂ…then I don't believe it allows the full power of Eastern medicine to help people."
Some of those in mainstream medicine also oppose managed care getting involved for other reasons.
"A part of alternative medicine is quackery," contends Dr. Renner, president of the Council on Reliable Health Information.
Dr. John Renner, a retired family physician and author of a book on reliable health information, says most alternative treatments are untested and nproven and that managed care's interest in it has more to do with money than medicine.
"I think a lot of it is economics. There are extreme pressures on parts of the medical world and some of it appears to be partially solved, or potentially solved by this rush towards alternative medicine," says Dr. Renner.
But there is science behind the move to embrace alternative medicine. Many herbal preparations are showing proven health benefits. And, the National Institutes of Health recently endorsed the effectiveness of acupuncture.
For people like Estella, the change in health care coverage can't come fast enough.
"It's just so amazing to me that if it's so cost effective and if everyone benefits, where is the resistance?" asks Estella.
Reported By John Roberts