Monday, May 18, 2009

"Should Universal Health Care Cover Faith Healing?"

By Amy Sullivan ("Times", May 14, 2009)

Washington, USA - Lobbying may be the one remaining recession-proof industry, and as Washington prepares for a summer-long debate over how to reform health care, lobbyists for every conceivable interest group have camped out in congressional anterooms to press their case. There are advocates for doctors, insurance companies, patients, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, big business and small business. And for faith healers too.

Of course, they wouldn't call themselves "faith healers." They argue that the term dismisses what they do as simple wishful thinking. But practitioners of Christian Science as well as other alternative therapies — including acupuncture, biofeedback, herbal medicine, holistic medicine and Reiki, a Japanese healing and relaxation technique — are intent on influencing the coming health-care-reform process. "We're advocates for people who want access to spiritual treatment," says Phil Davis, a Christian Science practitioner and his church's chief lobbyist. Their goal is to encourage Congress to think of health care as more than just medical care — and to allow insurance companies to provide coverage for their holistic treatments. (See the top 10 medical breakthroughs of 2008.)

The Christian Scientists have had some success in this area in the past. Founded in 1866 by Mary Baker Eddy, the Church of Christ, Scientist has worked for nearly a century with state licensing boards and legislatures to obtain recognition or acceptance for its practitioners, who treat injured or ill individuals by praying for them. Contrary to popular belief, Christian Scientists are not prevented from seeking medical treatment; the church just wants to make sure that both members and nonmembers are also able to afford visits to practitioners, which typically cost from $20 to $30 per session, and longer-term services of private nurses (who provide nonmedical care such as bathing, dressing wounds and feeding) and nursing facilities. TRICARE, the military health plan, already covers these services. And the Federal Employee Health Benefits program provides partial reimbursement for stays in Christian Science nursing facilities. More recently, Christian Scientists were able to obtain a special provision in the universal health-care plan enacted in Massachusetts, where the church is headquartered. In addition to exempting Christian Scientists from the requirement that all Massachusetts residents carry health insurance, the state allowed private insurer Tufts Health Plan to cover both medical and spiritual care, including stays at church nursing facilities. (Read "Debunking 10 Myths About Dieting.")

If the church could design a universal health-care plan for the country, it would allow — but not require — insurance companies to provide coverage for practitioners, nurses and nursing facilities. During the 1980s, when fee-for-service plans were more prevalent, Davis says Christian Scientists had riders that allowed them coverage with more than 300 carriers. But with the rise of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), they have found it more difficult to convince insurance companies to cover their "spiritual care."

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