Becky Tanner is what some people would call a "medical" naturopath. She likes herbal remedies and tends to ask patients probing questions about their diets and lifestyle. But she's also kind of mainstream. She went to an accredited, four-year naturopathic medical school and was even considered a primary care physician back in Arizona.
Eleven blocks west of Tanner's West Colorado Avenue practice, another "naturopath" sign leads to Cynthia Timberman, a more "traditional" practitioner.
Timberman learned her craft from online courses and from other healers. She has her own certification from the American Naturopathic Certification Board, and has worked with local physicians and hospital workers on alternative medical practices. Like Tanner, she emphasizes natural and herbal remedies. But she also might uncover health problems via "muscle testing," pulling on a patient's outstretched arm while using her own hand to check different "reflex points."
In my case, she says my arm weakens when she holds a finger over the left side of my stomach, a sure sign of infection: "I don't know what parasite you have, and I don't need to know, because your energy field will tell me," she says. (Turns out an herbal pumpkin remedy would be just the cure for me.)
Yes, whatever medical care you're seeking, Colorado gives Tanner, Timberman and other natural healers an equal shot at your business. Even though, technically, they're all breaking the law: The state's Medical Practice Act precludes anyone other than licensed physicians from "suggesting, recommending, prescribing, or administering any form of treatment, operation, or healing."
License to ill
That law, which often goes unenforced, could change with new legislation under consideration by the state Legislature. Sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, it would prune some of the naturopathic undergrowth by making registrations available to Tanner and other Colorado practitioners who graduated from one of six accredited naturopathic medical schools in North America. They would no longer be violating the Medical Practice Act while plying their trade.
The bill would create a task force of physicians and naturopathic doctors to recommend standards and a scope of practice for the profession. The group would be asked to make recommendations in the next three years.
In the meantime, naturopaths with the specified training who have passed an "approved" examination could become eligible for state registration. This isn't full-blown licensure, but Timberman and other traditional naturopaths fear that the task force would soon move in that direction. Since her N.D. degree is from an unaccredited school, she envisions a future in which she's deprived of the title "naturopath" and even barred from using muscle tests to offer herbal remedies.
"They want to make it illegal for anyone else to practice," Timberman says. "The medical naturopaths want to come in and get licensure."
Kim Green, who represents Colorado Citizens for Health Freedom, a local advocacy group, agrees.
"Licensing means one thing: putting everyone else out of business," she says.
Green says the law is too broad, slicing off for medical naturopaths territory now claimed by homeopaths, nutritional counselors and others.
It's a personal fight for Green, and not just because a relatively similar regulatory battle last year led to legislation that shifted the landscape for graduates of her Colorado Springs massage school. She says her daughter, now 9, was hospitalized repeatedly for pneumonia and other ailments before she was "saved" by a traditional naturopath who gave her dietary advice.
Now many traditional naturopaths are fleeing the state in fear they will be prosecuted, Green says, with a second offense for practicing naturopathic medicine without a registration counting as a felony.
"This bill is so frustrating to me because it limits our freedoms," Green says.
Call to coexist
On Feb. 12, the bill drew out opponents who railed against it at a House Health and Human Services Committee hearing. Still, it ambled by with a 6-4 vote, and now awaits approval by the Appropriations Committee and the wider Legislature.
Rena Bloom, a Denver medical naturopath, recalls five battles in the past 15 years to regulate naturopathic medicine in the state. She sounds alternately weary and mystified as she considers what will happen this time around. Regardless, she, for one, is ready to practice in the open.
"We will go from being criminals to being non-criminalized," Bloom says.
The argument is basically unchanged from previous pushes for regulation. Bloom and others see the law as necessary to separate legitimate, trained naturopathic doctors from cranks who put their patients at risk. One notable example: A Colorado teenager with cancer died in 2003 at the hands of a Wheat Ridge man who falsely claimed to be a naturopathic doctor (see "Rx for confusion," cover story, Jan. 19, 2006). His "treatment" involved hydrogen peroxide injections and complicated blood work.
Bloom doesn't think natural healers offering herbs and safe treatments will see any changes from the proposal.
"Nobody's stopping these people from doing what they are doing unless they are calling themselves naturopathy doctors," she says, noting that a provision was added to the bill saying it only applies to people eligible for registration.
If the bill passes, Bloom insists, it won't be the end of the world for other natural healers: "It doesn't mean we can't coexist."
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