B.C. first in Canada to cover acupuncture for low-income residents
Cindy E. Harnett, Times Colonist
Published: Monday, March 31, 2008
Low-income British Columbians will receive some added pain relief as the B.C. government becomes the first in Canada Tuesday to include registered acupuncturists under its Medical Services Plan premium-assistance program.

About 963,500 British Columbians living in households earning a combined $28,000 or less a year - including welfare recipients, students, the disabled, and seniors - are covered by the supplementary benefit.

The government estimates about two per cent of that population will initially use the treatment at a cost to the taxpayer, based on an average of five visits, of about $2.2 million.

It's a real milestone for the B.C. health care system and for traditional chinese medicine," said Dr. Harvey Hu, president of the B.C.'s Qualified Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine Association, in an interview.

Hu hopes the inclusion of the treatment method believed to have originated in China, dating back at least 2,500 years, will increase its standing amongst mainstream Western medicine.

"Acupuncture is a very natural therapy, no chemical drugs, just physical stimulation," Hu said. "Very safe."

B.C. Health Minister George Abbott, who has used acupuncture to treat his running injuries, said the program could cost as much as $3 million based on its uptake.

Abbott said acupuncture is recognized worldwide as a safe and effective way to treat and manage various health conditions, and that it was "a relatively easy decision" putting it on equal footing under MSP benefits with chiropractic, massage, naturopathy and physiotherapy services.

"We reviewed national and international literature," Abbott said. "The evidence was quite strong."

About 85,000 people on premium assistance used chiropractic services in 2006-2007 under the MSP supplementary benefit program at a cost of almost $10 million.

MSP reimburses premium assistance recipients $23 for each supplementary benefit - for example either physiotherapy, naturopathy or acupuncture - for a combined maximum of 10 visits per year.

But Teresa Crowe, an acupuncturist on Sointula Island near Alert Bay, said an average visit is $75 and that a $25 visit would only cover something for quick and simple such as ear acupuncture. The range is about $25 to $80, according to the health ministry.

"I think it's fantastic acupuncture is now being recognized as a valuable asset to our health services," Crowe said. "[But at $23] it's kind of back-handed help."

Individuals in households earning more than a combined $28,000 must still pay for services such as acupuncture, physiotherapy, massage and physiotherapy on their own or through an extended health insurance plan.

Acupuncture treatments involve inserting thread-thin sterilized needles under a patient's skin to stimulate points on the body with the object of relieving pain.

While the effectiveness of acupuncture continues to be controversial in some scientific circles, the use of acupuncture has shown promising results for the treatment of nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, nausea during pregnancy, migraine headaches, chronic lower back pain and pain from osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, according to the B.C. Health Ministry.

There are about 1,200 acupuncturists registered with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of B.C.