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Alternative Health-Care Policies Gaining Favor With Firms, Workers

Insurance: Strategy behind offering treatment options is to decrease employee absenteeism and reduce long-term costs.


Does a world in which acupuncture, massage therapy and nutritional counseling are covered by your employer's health insurance sound unrealistic?

Perhaps, but it's happening. Companies tired of providing just the regular old health-care policies, with doctors who proffer penicillin for bronchitis and a "take two of these and call me in the morning" approach, are now offering alternative health-care policies to complement traditional ones.

"We're constantly looking for new, inventive forms of benefits," said Virginia Costello, director of human resources for a scientific research company, Research & Data Systems Inc., in Greenbelt, Md.

Costello said that with the limitations that managed care has put on companies, she feels she is limited to a few major health plans, which diminishes a firm's ability to pick new and nontraditional ones.

Employees at Research & Data Systems asked Costello to check into alternative health-care plans to go along with the company's regular plan. One provider, a Towson, Md.-based start-up called Complementary Care Co., fit Costello's preliminary needs. The price was right and the practitioners in the plan are all certified, she said.

So far, the added coverage has proved popular.

"The employees love the concept of it," Costello said. "Employees are very happy with the things it does."

The coverage Research & Data Systems provides its employees includes a 50% discount for holistic medicine, including acupuncture, nutritional counseling, yoga and even holistic pet care. The cost is a plus too, she said--$36 for a single person per year, $60 for two people and $72 for a family.

Alternative medicine as a whole got a credibility boost when the National Institutes of Health announced its endorsement of acupuncture--for some types of pain and nausea--in November 1997.

The strategy behind companies offering alternative treatment options is to decrease employee absenteeism and cut down on health-care costs in the long run, according to practitioners and human resource directors, including Costello.

Karen Clark, executive vice president of Calverton, Va.-based Benicor Associates Inc., an employee benefits consulting and brokerage firm, said at least 20 businesses, including her company, have picked up the alternative health-care plan in the last few months.

"Everyone's concerned with the cost of health," Clark said. "Companies are looking for ways to manage health. Healthier employees don't have to move on to more expensive care."

Clark started looking into Complementary Care after several of her clients asked her about alternative medicine coverage. Many things that are covered by the alternative health-care provider are not covered by regular employee health insurance, and "these are services the employees are using," Clark said.

Included, she said, are massage therapy, chiropractic help, acupuncture therapy and nutritionist advice.

Most regular insurance claims are "so high . . . if [employees] can be helped by changing their diet, then great," Clark said.

It is a lot of responsibility for a member, though, Clark warned. "People need to be real careful that they do talk to their doctor and . . . it doesn't have an ill effect on their other health care."

T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. in Baltimore also offers acupuncture coverage for its employees.

"We've had a positive reaction. People like to have an option in addition to [their regular] health care," said Bernice C. Bisaha, vice president of employee benefits. Bisaha didn't find a carrier of alternative health care when she was looking for one, so she wrote a proposal to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Aetna Life & Casualty. The resulting arrangement is still considered a pilot program.

Costello said the number of employees who are signing up for the coverage speaks for itself. "Every day I get a new one," she said. And although the company has offered it for less than a month, about 30 people out of the company's 170 have picked up the coverage.

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