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Bill would let natural healers dole drugs

A bill that would give naturopaths in Alaska the right to prescribe drugs and perform minor surgery is moving rapidly through the Senate.

Advocates of the legislation say naturopaths undergo training that to some extent parallels that of medical doctors and is more lengthy than that of nurse practitioners, who are allowed to prescribe drugs.

"It's important the laws in Alaska reflect the high quality of education naturopaths receive," said Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

The Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on the measure Thursday morning, and Co-chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he expects to allow the bill to move from the committee after one more hearing. From there, it could go to the Senate floor for a vote.

A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks, is being considered in the House.

Scott Luper, a Fairbanks naturopath, said the bill would allow naturopaths to function as they are trained -- as primary care doctors. It would eliminate the need for patients to make an appointment with a medical doctor for ailments that require a prescription or minor surgery.

Naturopaths, who are required to be licensed in Alaska, generally prefer using nutrition, herbs and similar methods before using prescription drugs, but say they do not oppose using drugs when necessary.

The Alaska State Medical Association and the Alaska State Medical Board oppose the bill.

"Training for naturopaths is significantly less rigorous than that for physicians, in both length and depth of study," said the medical association's president, Alex Malter.

"Its emphasis on natural healing does not allow adequate opportunity for its students to fully learn the accepted pathology, physiology and pharmacology necessary to safely treat most medical conditions," Malter said.

Clyde Jensen, who heads a biomedical consulting firm in Oregon, has been testifying with naturopaths on the bill. He has advanced degrees in physiology and pharmacology and has taught at traditional medical schools, as well as naturopathic medicine schools, he said.

Both naturopaths and medical doctors start with an undergraduate degree and their first two years of postgraduate school are very similar, including courses in physiology, anatomy and pharmacology, Jensen said.

In the third and fourth years, their paths diverge. A medical student starts clinical training, typically in a hospital, while a naturopathy student's clinical training would usually be in an outpatient clinic under the supervision of a naturopath, Jensen said.

After graduating from medical school, medical doctors enter residency training, which is not required of naturopaths.

Several other states that license naturopaths allow them to perform minor surgery and prescribe some medicines, Luper said.

"The track record of naturopathic physicians is quite good," Luper said. "In fact, the malpractice costs for naturopathic physicians are among the lowest of all professions. I personally pay $3,000 a year, which is unheard of for any other kind of doctor."

Some medical doctors have written letters in support of the bill, saying they have collaborated successfully with naturopaths on mutual patients.

The bill would require naturopaths to complete 45 hours of continuing education every year, including 15 hours in pharmacology.

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, who headed a subcommittee of the House Labor and Commerce Committee that looked at the bill, is not convinced the existing law governing naturopaths needs to change.

Gatto is not comfortable allowing naturopaths to prescribe drugs and disagrees with a section of the bill that would allow them to refer to themselves as naturopathic physicians.

"I just want to make sure when you go to a naturopath, you fully understand they're not what you for your whole life have known to be a physician," Gatto said.

The Labor and Commerce Committee amended the bill to remove the ability for naturopaths to prescribe controlled substances, such as morphine, Valium and other potentially addictive drugs, as well as mental health drugs, such as antidepressants.

The bill passed the committee Wednesday, but still must go through the House Health Education and Social Services and Judiciary committees.

The Senate Finance Committee removed the ability for naturopaths to prescribe the most addictive drugs, such as morphine, but would still allow them to prescribe less dangerous drugs, such as Valium.

From the Anchorage Daily News

March 26, 2004 in alaska, complementary and alternative medicine , politics | Permalink