British Columbian taxpayers saw a bad situation turn worse recently. Not only is the provincial Ministry of Health subsidizing acupuncture, but practitioners are administering other alternative-health treatments and falsely billing them as acupuncture. For example:
A staff member at the Ha Chinese Medicine Wellness Clinic in Richmond said they would apply the subsidy to Chinese massage and herbs….
Dr. Harreson Caldwell, who runs the Caldwell Clinic in downtown Vancouver, told CBC News he would just use one tiny needle during hypnosis and bill it as acupuncture. … “It’s not being dishonest,” he said, ” because you are using acupuncture and you are using the Chinese meridian system.”
Angel Wong, manager at Ha Chinese Medicine Wellness Clinic, said pressure to grant the subsidy for other services comes from patients. “I cannot say that no we won’t do it,” said Wong. “If patients ask [for subsidized tui na] … we cannot refuse them.” [bold emphasis mine]
Defrauding the public purse is unacceptable, no matter who does it. Rationalizing it (“oh, it’s only a little fraud, because acupuncture is so poorly defined”) and blaming patients is professionally irresponsible and unethical. It’s not the patients that are committing the fraud, it’s the practitioners who should know better.
The BC government controversially decided to start funding acupuncture for low-income residents two years ago to a maximum of $230 per year (about 10 sessions), despite the lack of persuasive evidence demonstrating efficacy. BC is currently the only province that covers acupuncture with public money and now they are also unknowingly subsidizing other alternative medicine treatments.
To be perfectly explicit:
- BC taxpayers are covering the use of acupuncture on low-income health consumers due to extensive lobbying based on poor evidence.
- This coverage has unfortunately provided a work-around for acupuncturists and other alternative medicine practitioners to provide other potentially unsafe and ineffective remedies under the guise of acupuncture.
- False reporting of this nature constitutes serious health fraud at the cost of BC taxpayers.
The acupuncture subsidy cost $4.3 million last year. The news report did not specify an estimate for how much of that actually went to acupuncture and how much went to other non-subsidized treatments.
Ms. Watterson, of the TCM College, said:
“We can launch an investigation. We can look into it. We can initiate an inquiry case … an investigation, and then it’s up to the inquiry committee to look at the evidence and make a decision.”
I find this statement strangely non-committal for a professional association that should be providing oversight to TCM practitioners who, by the way, openly admit to what they’re doing. However, the health ministry itself promised to investigate “if [they] believe this is taking place” – whatever that means. Worryingly, though, the health ministry falsely asserts that:
“Acupuncture is recognized worldwide as a safe and effective way to treat or manage a variety of health conditions, and we are pleased to offer it as a supplementary benefit for low income British Columbians.“
No, it is not so recognized. Nor it is necessarily safe. A supplement to regular care is not appropriate to manage health conditions, as is implied in that statement. Especially as the definition of acupuncture can be so variable that apparently even using a single needle during hypnosis can be justified as treatment.
Considering the evidence, there are far better ways to spend $4.3 million tax dollars on low-income health consumers than acupuncture and whatever else is being billed as such.