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Providing the Alternative

Complementary Coverage?

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Your cousin tells you acupuncture has really helped her migraines. Your sister swears by chiropractic for her stiff neck. You wouldn't mind exploring some alternative therapies for a few of your own ailments, but you're not crazy about the idea of paying for the treatments. Well, you might not have to. Traditional insurance carriers are realizing that if they want to keep their customers satisfied, they need to jump on the CAM (complementary/alternative medicine) bandwagon themselves.

A 1998 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the use of alternative therapies in the U.S. is on the rise. According to the report, 42% of adults used at least one form of alternative medicine or therapy in 1997, spending more than $33 billion.

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"We're always looking for the quick fix," says Rick Gallion, director of complementary and alternative medicine for Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina (BCBSSC). "We need to rethink how we can help the general public avoid disease."

A self-confessed "health nut," Gallion oversees BCBSSC's Natural Blue program. Begun in January 1999, Natural Blue offers policyholders discount fees for chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage services provided by a network of BCBSSC-approved providers.

"We emphasize quality providers," says Gallion. "There is a stringent qualifying process for the public's protection."

Because Gallion believes that educating -- as well as protecting -- the public is paramount, BSBSSC also includes information on complementary and alternative medicine on its web site -- www.southcarolinablues.com -- where you can click on "natural blue" and submit questions, as well as search for information on a variety of CAM topics.

Since there are no claims to file with Natural Blue, Gallion has no data on just how many people have taken advantage of the program. There has been a lot of positive feedback, however, he says, and in the last three months, the Natural Blue web site has received 27,000 visitors.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) is another insurance carrier seeking to capitalize on its subscribers' interest in alternative therapies. Alt Med Blue, a comprehensive alternative medicine discount program, was begun in April 2000. North Carolina's program is more extensive than South Carolina's Natural Blue -- with discounts offered not only on acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, but also on yoga, stress management, personal trainers, fitness centers, spas, homeopathy, naturopathy, and nutrition counseling.

In announcing the program, BCBSNC's chief medical officer, Robert Harris, MD, said that Alt Med Blue gives members a choice of services that "promote good health."

As alternative medicine practitioners come up with more "hard science" to back up their claims of effectiveness, insurance carriers will be more likely to add coverage for these therapies, says Anna Silberman, president and CEO of Lifestyle Advantage in Pittsburgh.

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