Footing the Bill

Oregon insurance carriers say yes to alternative medicine.

By Camela Raymond May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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AS FEW AS five years ago, health insurance companies paid little or no heed to alternative medicine practitioners and their patients. But consumer demand is changing the industry’s attitude, says Adrienne Hutchins, an associate with Greenberg & Associates Insurance in Southwest Portland. “Consumers want to explore alternative care; instead of painkillers or surgery for back problems, they want to see if routine chiropractic adjustments can work out their issues,” she says. And increasingly, their carriers are cooperating.

Today the roughly 10 major carriers in Oregon—Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, LifeWise, ODS, UHC-PacifiCare, PacificSource, Providence, Regence BlueCross BlueShield, Aetna and CIGNA—cover alternative therapies in some form, usually via optional riders, says Glen Grant, a consultant with Davidson Benefits Planning in Tualatin. At Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, for example, employers can opt to pay a surcharge of about 1-to-2 percent of the basic premium price, which buys each of their workers up to $1,000 per year of combined chiropractic, acupuncture and naturopathic care. As with any doctor appointment, patients must kick in a $20 co-pay for each visit, and the carrier covers the rest. Insurance companies often prefer to cover alternative care through such riders in order to control the overall cost of basic premiums.

A few insurance companies in Oregon (including LifeWise, ODS, Health Net and Associated Oregon Industries) have fully embraced alternative care by adding coverage into their basic group plans—though there can be a cost trade-off, according to Hutchins. “Health Net does a good job keeping premiums low, but they only offer a $500 [yearly maximum alternative care] benefit for individual and small group plans,” she says. Still, as more alternative healthcare provider networks form in response to demand, prices are likely to come down, adds Grant.

Even if your health plan doesn’t cover your weekly acupuncture habit, you can still offset your alt-doctor bills by setting up a flexible spending account, or FSA. By federal law, you can use the tax-sheltered funds in these accounts to pay for things like routine acupuncture and chiropractic care. With a physician’s certification of medical necessity, you can even enjoy tax-free massages and St John’s Wort pills.

“I think if everyone had a massage per week, the world would be a better place,” muses Hutchins. If you agree, you might consider signing up with a carrier like Health Net, which covers massage therapy in its basic plan. If current trends continue, though, the company won’t be alone for long.

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