Peter Blake

Begging for regulations comes naturally for “Naturopaths”

Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies has been trying hard not to regulate the people who call themselves naturopaths. For 20 years it has consistently spurned pleas to conduct a “sunrise” review that could expedite passage of a bill requiring licensure. Since DORA normally pursues regulation as aggressively as bureaucracies everywhere, naturopathy must truly be harmless.

But this year, despite the lack of a “sunrise” review or an endorsement by DORA, a small branch of neuropathy is having success with a regulatory proposal, House Bill 1111. It passed the House 41-22 Monday and is now in the Senate.

All my life I’ve managed to steer clear of naturopathy, which seems to be practiced by people who scratch out a living by urging you to eat your vegetables, exercise, get enough sleep and, oh, would you like to buy my herbs and vitamins? But I must be in a shrinking minority since I’m told that there are more than 16,000 people in Colorado holding themselves out as naturopaths. They claim a customer base of 1.5 million. That’s probably an exaggeration, but I admit I should be more sympathetic. After all, they are presenting an alternative to traditional medicine, which is busy prescribing heavily advertised, exorbitantly overpriced drugs that promise to cure whatever ails you (and never mind the obligatory listing of possible side effects such as nausea, liver damage, headaches, diarrhea, bad dreams, four hours of priapism and thoughts of suicide). Drug company lawyers manage to prolong the patents beyond the limit set by law and they even pay off makers of generics to not produce much cheaper versions. That’s modern medicine.

H.B. 1111 was originally drafted to require full licensure, but under pressure from the Colorado Medical Society was rewritten as a somewhat weaker registration bill. The bill came not from aggrieved patients but from a small group of naturopaths who attended a half dozen specific schools that offer a smidgen of medical training as well as naturopathy. In 2011 DORA estimated there are only about 120 of them who would be eligible for regulation. They would be entitled to perform certain “minor” surgical procedures and to prescribe a limited number of pharmaceuticals.

These naturopaths believe that state regulation would enable them to buy liability insurance at less cost and give their practice more public respect. But the bill’s main benefit is that henceforth only they could call themselves “naturopathic doctors.” Others who used the term could be punished with fines and jail. The bill is “to expand their profitability and to exclude another group of people,” said a sardonic Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, during floor debate.

DORA has declined to back any regulatory moves because so few practitioners would be covered, and because proponents could find only two examples of harm caused by naturopaths in Colorado. The much larger excluded group, fighting the bill, is represented by the Colorado Coalition for Natural Health, the Colorado Sunshine Health Freedom Foundation and other organizations.

Joanie Coffey, president of the coalition, maintains there are about 2,000 naturopathic doctors — including herself — who went to other schools but would not be entitled to use the title should H.B. 1111 be signed into law. The other practitioners simply call themselves naturopaths. If bill proponents “want to practice medicine, they need to go to medical school,” Coffey said. “Their training is no better than naturopathic doctors who went to school elsewhere.”

Her members don’t want to prescribe drugs or do even minimal surgery. They have never sought any regulation to limit competition. Since it looks as though H.B. 1111 will pass, the other naturopaths are promoting a new measure, Senate Bill 215, which would at least legalize what they are already doing. The state’s Medical Practices Act is so broad that in theory naturopaths might be violating it even when they give nutrition advice. The only reason they’re not prosecuted is that the medical society lacks the time and the manpower to go after them, Coffey said.

In effect, S.B. 215 is an anti-regulation bill paired against a regulation bill. It is scheduled in a Senate committee April 4. Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, suggested during floor debate that the naturopaths seeking regulation should get it because, after all, they had been pursuing it such a long time. But Gerou disputed the theory that a trade should get regulation simply because some practitioners want it. Regulation is necessary only when there are “life safety” issues, and the naturopaths don’t have them, she maintained. Otherwise regulation serves only to limit competition.

Oddly enough, Gerou voted for the bill anyway. That’s because she thinks there are a number of fraudulent naturopaths and if they have to register, it will be easier for law enforcement to track them down and throw them in jail. That’s an interesting theory, but if in fact any naturopathic doctors are arrested, it won’t be by their own board but by physicians who think they’re violating the Medical Practices Act.

Coffey and her supporters want S.B. 215 to pass and H.B. 1111 to die. But timing the bills is tricky, and if 1111 dies in the Senate, its supporters might kill 215 out of revenge. Those are games lawmakers play.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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