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Measure Would Give Doctor's Licenses to Graduates of 4 Naturopathy Schools

The state Senate bill would allow qualified practitioners to prescribe drugs, help deliver babies and do minor surgery.

July 19, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — People who treat illness with natural methods would become licensed doctors of a sort in California under a bill working its way through the Legislature.

The bill would allow Californians holding a degree from one of four naturopathic schools in the nation to prescribe drugs, order lab tests, help deliver babies, perform minor surgeries -- such as stitching wounds -- and use the term naturopathic doctor, or N.D. Experts estimate that 50 to 150 Californians currently would qualify for such licensing.

If it clears the Legislature and is signed by the governor, California would join 12 other states that now regulate the practice of naturopathy, which relies heavily on herbs and diet to help the body heal itself.

The most vociferous opponents of the bill, SB 907, are people who practice naturopathy but don't have the 4,100 hours of naturopathic and scientific study the bill would require to qualify for a license. Under current law, practitioners of naturopathy must advise patients that they are not licensed physicians and their services are not licensed.

Opponents contend the bill gives economic protection to a small group of people who would be able to charge health insurance companies for their services if they received a state license. Opponents also say the legislation would create a massive new market for the graduates of the schools -- in Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut -- whose degrees would qualify them for a California license.

"That's what this is about," said Boyd Landry, who represents 2,500 naturopathy practitioners in the nation, hundreds of them in California, as executive director of the Coalition for Natural Health. "It's about saving those schools."

Supporters agree that the bill would benefit those graduates.

"There are many hundreds of people who want to come to California but don't want to practice in a state without licensing," said Tara Levy, who practices naturopathic medicine in Concord.

The bill carries inherent heft in the Legislature because its author, Democrat John Burton of San Francisco, leads the state Senate. The bill has cleared the Senate and faces a vote in the Assembly. Gov. Gray Davis has taken no position on the bill.

Supporters include Los Angeles real estate heir Stephen L. Bing, who has donated $325,000 to Davis since 2001, including $100,000 last month to the committee fighting a Republican-led effort to recall the governor. In 2002, Bing gave $1 million to Bastyr University, near Seattle, which offers a graduate program in naturopathic medicine.

Burton said he has talked to Bing about the legislation.

"He thinks it's good public policy," Burton said.

But Bastyr University officials suggested the bill, he said.

"If it's a nice market for them, so what?" Burton said. "Someone could open a college ... down here."

He disputed the notion that the bill would take business away from naturopathic healers who don't have degrees from the four accredited universities. They can still call themselves practitioners of naturopathic medicine, Burton said; they just can't call themselves doctors.

"It doesn't lock anyone in; it doesn't lock anyone out," he said.

Melissa Metcalfe, a Bastyr University graduate who treats patients in Westlake Village, said she looks forward to the day she can be licensed by the state. She and other students of naturopathy earned their degrees knowing there would be few places where they could practice with the official sanction of the state.

"We were taking a huge gamble on whether we were ever going to be able to practice medicine or not," Metcalfe said. Her patients must pay cash because insurers won't cover her treatments.

The California Medical Assn., which represents 60,000 practicing physicians, has opposed the bill. The CMA would like to strip from the bill the authority to prescribe drugs and deliver babies without supervision of a physician.

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