BC Taxes are Paying for Acupuncture …and Who Knows What Else

CHONGQING, CHINA - JANUARY 9: (CHINA OUT) Chinese man Wei Shengchu displays acupuncture needles in his forehead during a self-acupuncture performance on January 9, 2007 in Chongqing Municipality, China. Wei inserted 1,200 needles into his head skin during the show. According to local media, the sixty-year-old acupuncturist is a cosmetic doctor from Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, who has the Guinness World Record for self-acupuncturing at 1,790 needles in his face. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

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.

9 Responses to “BC Taxes are Paying for Acupuncture …and Who Knows What Else”

  1. Dale says:

    Thank you for reminding me of the lovely errors in our province’s medical coverage. It is a disgrace and needs to be dealt with quickly.

  2. John Greg says:

    What BC taxes are really paying for is Gordon Campbell’s (and all his friends in the Fraser Institute) retirement, and the end of real and legitimate democratic process.

  3. Mary P says:

    Where can we complain to most effectively. Also any suggestions on how to trigger a fraud investigation given that they are publicly admitting to committing fraud.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      In the matter of determining tax budgets, it may be effective to write your local MLA (and their competition) and let them know where you do and do not want your taxes spent within the health care system and why. If you do so, present a clear and logical argument, be polite, and – if applicable – explain very clearly that this is an issue that would determine your vote. And though this is 2010, sometimes people still take written letters more seriously than an email. It may also be appropriate to write the MLAs of the regions that were reported in the CBC article, as they may be unaware of this practice.

      In the matter of alleged fraud, I don’t fully know what is necessary to have this sufficiently investigated, as IANAL nor am I familiar with BC law. But as the health ministry indicated interest in pursuing an investigation, I would suggest writing them to let them know you think that is important. I don’t know how effective writing the TCM College itself would be.

      If anyone else has any more effective suggestions, particularly someone more familiar with the province of BC, please leave them in the comments.

  4. Ron Brown says:

    Hi Kim,

    I was just checking out SkepticNorth and noticed that you’re an OT. I’m a 2nd year OT student at the Univ of Western Ontario. I did my undergrad at U of T, where I actually helped start up the U of T Secular Alliance which Mitchell Gerskup took over sometime after I left.

    I recently started up a blog so I’m interested in seeing what other bloggers are up to, so I’ll probably check back on Skeptic North.

    http://deathbytrolley.wordpress.com (the above address has been a bit hit-and-miss lately..)

    • kim hebert says:

      Hi Ron, Sorry to have neglected your comment, but I’m out of the country until next week. I’ve just had a chance to catch up on some correspondence, but I’ll have to wait until I get back to chat more in-depth. Thanks for your comment. Talk to you then!

  5. P Wolfe says:

    An excerpt from a recent New Yorker article:”One of the classic examples of selective reporting concerns the testing of acupuncture in different countries. While acupuncture is widely accepted as a medical treatment in various Asian countries, its use is much more contested in the West. These cultural differences have profoundly influenced the results of clinical trials. Between 1966 and 1995, there were forty-seven studies of acupuncture in China, Taiwan, and Japan, and every single trial concluded that acupuncture was an effective treatment. During the same period, there were ninety-four clinical trials of acupuncture in the United States, Sweden, and the U.K., and only fifty-six per cent of these studies found any therapeutic benefits. As Palmer notes, this wide discrepancy suggests that scientists find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see. Our beliefs are a form of blindness.”

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer#ixzz1AsqrBxP5

    • Art Tricque says:

      The New Yorker article provides no evidence that the reporting of acupuncture studies is selective, just an allegation through a tally. There is also no examination of the quality of the studies either. In fact, the article is not an examination of acupuncture at all. There is not even a discussion of how each group of scientists writing the articles were biased in coming to the conclusions they did. As the skeptic blogger Orac notes in his post responding to the New Yorker article “Is the ‘decline effect’ really so mysterious?”:”…it is devilishly difficult to identify and quantify such biases. That, of course, doesn’t stop proponents of pseudoscience from crying ‘bias!’ whenever their results are rejected by mainstream science.”


  1. [...] say… but wait a cotton-picking minute, aren’t these the same health bureaucrats who spend public money to fund acupuncture and other forms of “alternative [...]

  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.