Will Obamacare fund quackery?

Published on Tuesday, 9 July 2013 22:40 - Written by

Perhaps it’s just as well that President Barack Obama has delayed implementation of a key part of his Affordable Care Act until 2015. His authority to do so is unclear, but no more unclear than the law itself. Everyone, it seems, could use another year to try to figure out just what’s in it.

A new issue is being raised — are “alternative” and “complementary” forms of medicine going to be covered? And if so, does that mean Americans are going to further subsidize quackery?

That apparently depends on your state.

“California legislators say acupuncture makes the cut,” the Washington Post explains. “Michigan regulators would include chiropractic services. Oregon officials would leave both of those benefits on the cutting-room floor. Colorado has deemed pre-vacation visits to travel clinics necessary, while leaving costly fertility treatments out of its preliminary package.”

Taxpayers already fund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine” to the tune of $130 million per year. Footing the bill for alternative treatments — we won’t say cures — will send that figure skyrocketing.

Let’s look at the science, because science matters. Acupuncture, a favorite of alternative medicine advocates because of its long history, doesn’t actually work.

“Acupuncturists extol the ancient Chinese technique as a treatment of autism, schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, erectile dysfunction, and a host of other conditions,” says science writer Ross Pomeroy in his blog at realclearscience.com. “In reality, scientific examination has only shown acupuncture to be effective in alleviating certain types of chronic pain as well as postoperative nausea and vomiting, and only marginally so.”

But a new study says acupuncture is “little or no more than a theatrical placebo.”

“The benefits of acupuncture are likely nonexistent, or at best are too small and too transient to be of any clinical significance,” Professor David Colquhoun of the University College London and Dr. Steven Novella of Yale University wrote recently.

Pomeroy says that’s because the treatment’s foundational belief is flawed.

“When visiting a certified acupuncturist, he or she may diagnose you by examining the shape, coating, and color of your tongue, the color of your face, and the rhythm of your pulse,” he says. “Such analysis will supposedly reveal any imbalance in your life energy or ‘Qi.’

If that sounds a tad kooky, that’s because it probably is. To date, scientists have been unable to uncover any evidence that Qi actually exists.”

To be sure, there’s a difference between “it works for me” and “it works.” That’s an important difference. “It works for me” isn’t evidence, it’s anecdote. “It works” is a claim that science can test.

Human beings can be illogical and even irrational, particularly when our health is concerned. Steve Jobs famously put off science-based treatment for his cancer in favor of acupuncture, juices and dietary regimens. Doctors say his form of cancer was curable — if treated in time. He died in 2011.

Of course, adults in a free market should be free to purchase whatever services they wish from alternative and complementary practitioners.

But the rest of us shouldn’t be forced to subsidize quackery.