Bitter pill

Texas' naturopathic physicians lose a bid to become legal

On a clear December morning, a local doctor runs through a visual exercise with a patient. The physician holds in front of the man's face a stick painted with black stripes; he then instructs the patient to follow the stick with his eyes. There is not a sound in the room, but as the man moves his eyes from left to right, the sound of the office door being kicked in startles both doctor and patient. Law-enforcement officials rush the doctor and wrestle the stick from his hand. They charge the physician with practicing medicine without a license.

That was 41 years ago; those cops were the Texas Rangers, sent to Dallas County to enforce the law. Seems the doctor, who practiced something called naturopathy, wasn't a real doctor--at least not according to the state of Texas.

Maybe that's why today, the Naturopathic Center of North Texas sits in a nondescript office building on Midway Road, off LBJ Freeway. People driving past can't help but ignore the dull-brown brick building, with its darkly tinted windows. If not for cars parked here and there around it, one might never even know the building is occupied. There isn't even an office directory, which is just fine with Stephen Sporn, the naturopathic physician who runs the center where patients go for non-invasive, natural procedures--meaning no surgery, no unnatural medicines, and no machines. It would be good to get some walk-in business, but he doesn't want to call too much attention to himself.

After all, the man's a medical outlaw, practicing without a license. Sporn and his fellow naturopathic practitioners have been illegal for more than four decades. They could suffer the penalty for practicing medicine without a license in this state: a $20,000 fine and up to five years in prison. So he goes about his business as unobtrusively as possible.

Once, it was legal to be a naturopathic physician in Texas. In the late 1940s and early '50s, anyone who completed a four-year, post-graduate program and received the degree of doctor of naturopathic medicine was considered the real thing. Holistic practitioners could get a license to treat illnesses using only herbs, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, and counseling--all that Mother Nature allows.

Not anymore. Only now, there are no Texas Rangers breathing down the doctors' necks. Rather, the Texas Association of Naturopathic Physicians is running into trouble from the powerful and wealthy Texas Medical Association, which helped defeat a bill during the final moments of the recently ended state legislative session that would have allowed naturopaths to practice legally in Texas once again.

State Sen. Greg Luna of San Antonio had proposed Senate Bill 146, the Naturopathic Physicians Act, which would have licensed naturopaths to practice legally in Texas. Luna, whose son is a naturopath, was doing nothing more than trying to re-enact legislation that existed until 1957. In the bill, Luna wrote that the purpose of the proposed act is to provide standards for licensing and regulating naturopaths in order to provide "the public with freedom of choice in health care."

And it looked as though the bill was going to pass--until, according to Sporn, the TMA flexed its lobbying muscle and crushed it at the last possible moment.

"On April 19, we had the votes to get this bill out of committee," says Sporn, who had been practicing illegally in California for 13 years, until moving to Dallas in 1995. "On April 20, the TMA walked into committee offices and turned them."

Sporn contends that the Texas Medical Association perceives naturopaths, and their holistic medicine, as a threat to their business. After all, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, consumers spent $27 billion on alternative health care in 1997, and insurance companies are starting to cover the less expensive treatments. Med-school grads could potentially stand to lose millions of dollars to the herbalists and healers--dispensers of what critics refer to as "the new snake oil," the headline of a recent anti-alternative medicine piece in the journal Commentary.

But Alfred Gilquist, the TMA's director of legislative affairs, dismisses Sporn's contention that his organization is out to quash naturopaths. Rather, he insists, Luna's bill has "everything to do with lowering the standard of medical care in the state of Texas." For instance, Gilquist asserts, S.B. 146 "allows people who did not go to medical school to perform surgery, prescribe medications, and deliver babies."

Alice Breard, Luna's executive assistant, contends that's hardly the case. Breard, who was charged with shepherding the bill through the Legislature when Luna became seriously ill from complications of diabetes during the last session, insists the TMA is taking the bill's language out of context. Indeed, the bill states that naturopaths can perform childbirth only with a certificate of specialty practice in naturopathic childbirth.

It also would have allowed for naturopaths to use "operative, electrical, or other methods for the repair of, and care incidental to, superficial lacerations and abrasions" and other minor office procedures. The bill explicitly states that naturopaths are not allowed to administer general or spinal anesthesia or perform major surgery.

Breard insists that naturopaths would be regulated like any other medical specialty. "Anything that's already licensed in the state--like acupuncture, midwifery--they would have to meet the minimum [state] requirements in that field before they could do it," she explains.

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