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Naturopathy And Homeopathy Are Just Two Of The Natural Therapies Being Ditched By The Private Health Insurance Rebate

This is a tricky one.

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Sara* is a 30-year-old social worker from Sydney who has suffered from a number of problems related to her digestive system for over four years, including small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Sara told BuzzFeed News that these problems cause her significant stress and she feels that conventional medicine has failed to help her in managing the symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, constipation, bloating, and indigestion.

In addition to these problems, Sara suffers from long-term anxiety.

After visiting over ten doctors in a three-year span and spending a large amount of money, Sara began using natural therapies such as naturopathy and Chinese medicine under her private health insurance plan to maintain her well-being.

"I use it for Chinese medicine all the time and that has saved me so much pain on so many occasions," she said.

Sara also credits her naturopath with fixing her "gut, energy levels, and mental health".

In October of 2017, federal minister for health Greg Hunt introduced a comprehensive private health insurance reform package with the aim of increasing Australian participation in private health insurance.

The package includes the removal of coverage for some natural therapies including: Alexander technique, aromatherapy, Bowen therapy, Buteyko, Feldenkrais, herbalism, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, naturopathy, Pilates, reflexology, Rolfing, shiatsu, tai chi, and yoga.

The changes will apply from April 1, 2019.

However, the reforms will maintain rebate for chiropractic, Chinese medicine, and massage therapy.

By removing the benefits for the therapies, Hunt believes that overall premiums (including hospital and general treatment) could be reduced by 0.1% in 2019.

Australians are currently on a downward trend with use of private health insurance, with more than 12,000 people breaking with their private hospital cover in the last quarter of 2017 alone.

The decline in private health insurance coverage is particularly notable among the 20 to 24 and 25 to 29-year-old age brackets.

Sara is concerned about the changes to the rebates and the implications that they will have for her well-being.

"I actually don't know what I'll do if I can't afford these health professionals," she said.

"The more holistic our health industry, the better! Why is that so hard to understand?"

According to a 2007 study, two thirds of Australians use at least one form of complementary or alternative medicine annually with a collective expenditure of $4.1 billion.

Hunt says that these insurance reforms follow "consultation with the private health insurance and medical sector".

A 2017 review from the Department of Health looked at the literature to support the natural therapies covered by private health insurance.

The report aimed to find clear evidence for the clinical effectiveness of natural therapies in accordance with the guidelines of the Chief Medical Office for rebate.

Therapies such as the Alexander technique, Buteyko, massage therapy, tai chi, and yoga showed low to moderate evidence that they "may improve certain health outcomes for a limited number of clinical conditions" and it was suggested that it would be valuable to conduct further research in these areas.

The report concluded that there was a lack of empirical data in the field that made it impossible to assess the true efficacy of any of the outlined natural therapies.

"However, in most cases the quality of the overall body of evidence was not sufficient to enable definite conclusions to be drawn about the clinical effectiveness of the therapies," the report said.

Emeritus Professor Alastair MacLennan, head of the Cerebral Palsy Research Group at the University of Adelaide and vice president of Friends of Science in Medicine, a collection of doctors and academics that supports evidence-based medicine, told BuzzFeed News that Australians should not be obliged to pay for natural therapies under their private health insurance plans.

"To give you an example, if there was an extreme religious cult that you didn't believe in but you were told that to get dentistry, podiatry, optometry, you had to donate money to fund this cult by taking out insurance that covered them, you ought to be upset."

"For informed people who understand science, most of these alternative medicines are a cult."

Charles Wurf, CEO of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS), an organisation that represents 10,000 Australian natural therapy practitioners, told BuzzFeed News that the therapies have their value as a complement to conventional treatment

"We see ourselves as working as a compliment to the existing health, aged care, and disability sectors. Our practitioners often have more time and more ability to spend on that individual treatment once there's a diagnosis and it's a perfectly sensible part of the Australian health system.

"We believe that there's a strong place for our practitioners to work in the preventative space and in the wellness area."

Sara agrees that this two-pronged approach is useful.

"I think conventional and alternative practices should be used hand in hand."

Wurf and the Australian Traditional Medicine Society have now launched a campaign this week encouraging voters to lobby against the government's decision to alter private health insurance rebates before the cuts to natural therapies benefits are legislated.

A spokeswoman from the Department of Health told BuzzFeed News the amendments to the health insurance rules are currently being finalised and there will be a three-week consultation on the draft rules.

Gerry Dendrinos, national president of the Australian Homeopathic Association says that he supports Wurf and the "ATMS campaign completely".

The Australian Homeopathic Association have also launched their own campaign with complementary medicine and natural therapy associations to petition the government into keeping the natural therapy rebates.

Wurf believes that the benefits cuts will be "an unnecessary burden and cost to those who are choosing those treatments".

However, for McLennan the lack of choice for Australians paying for natural therapies under private health insurance cover is the fundamental problem.

"People can take out insurance for alternative therapies and use them but why should you or I take out insurance if we don't believe them or don't want to use them?"

Under the 2019 benefits rebate reform, insurers can continue to offer access to the natural therapies no longer covered by the private health insurance rebate as a customer inducement, as long as the cost is not more than 12% of the premium price.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Contact Elfy Scott at elfy.scott@buzzfeed.com.

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