The path to finding a good doctor can be tricky for ailing Colorado citizens seeking non-invasive natural healing instead of reliance on powerful drugs or surgery.
That's because naturopathic physicians in Colorado who have at least four years of post-graduate medical education are lumped in with those who can boast only an online degree that takes weeks to complete.
That means trouble for trained naturopathic doctors such as Mark Cooper, who owns the Alpine Naturopathic Clinic on South 21st Street. As a naturopath, he offers a variety of natural healing techniques, including herbal supplements, topical treatments and diet regimes.
This summer Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and the Colorado State Board of Medical Examiners sued Cooper, charging him with practicing medicine without a license. Specifically, the suit says Cooper removed a patient's hemorrhoids in 2002 and sold a thyroid medication to a patient last year.
"No one's ever been hurt," Cooper says, before declining to discuss more specifics of the case before his Sept. 23 hearing.
Cooper holds a doctorate in naturopathic medicine from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Oregon, one of four nationally accredited schools that train naturopaths as primary care physicians. However, Colorado currently offers no licenses to naturopaths.
If the state wins its case, Cooper says he could lose his practice because the suit seeks to prevent him from providing many of the services he offers.
Officials at the attorney general's office and the Board of Medical Examiners declined to discuss the case.
To license or not
Cooper's case, in which harm is not alleged, stands in stark contrast with a recent suit that claimed a Jefferson County naturopath possibly killed a patient. According to court documents, Brian O'Connell, of Wheat Ridge, did not attend a nationally accredited naturopath program, but rather earned his degree in a correspondence course.
Last year he was arrested after 19-year-old Sean Flanagan, a cancer patient, died. O'Connell reportedly removed blood from Flanagan, treated it with ultraviolet light and returned it to Flanagan's body before his death. Although O'Connell settled with Flanagan's parents in a wrongful death suit, Jefferson County's district attorney is suing O'Connell for practicing without a license.
Cooper's supporters dislike their doctor being thrown in the same legal hot water as O'Connell.
"They are taking away our freedom of choice for medical care," says Deborah Kaufman, one of Cooper's patients.
Kaufman and other patients began contacting state representatives to demand Colorado join 14 states that currently license naturopaths.
"I've received lots of e-mails," says Rep. Michael Merrifield. "I'm inclined to think they should be licensed."
10 years strong
The fight for naturopath licensure has raged for more than 10 years in Colorado. A licensing bill actually passed the state's House of Representatives in 1999 before dying in a Senate committee.
Opponents to licensing have included traditional medical interests and the hundreds of alternative healers who don't hold doctorates.
The Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians, a group representing naturopaths with accredited doctorates, filed a "sunrise" application last year with the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.
The application, the third in 12 years filed by the association, seeks to create a board to regulate and license naturopaths. A decision on the application, due in October, will hinge on whether harm results from not regulating naturopaths.
-- Dan Wilcock