Vitamin makers have found a way to make you pay for their bogus ‘natural’ cures — using Medicare
Gwyneth Paltrow (DFree / Shutterstock)

Alternative medical practitioners are fighting for more authority and Medicare reimbursement with the help of their "corporate partners," vitamin makers.

More than 100 aspiring or practicing naturopaths will go Monday to Washington, D.C., where they will promote a federal pilot program that would allow them to access Medicare funds for treating some patients, reported Stat.

They are also pushing for more authority to diagnose and treat patients in some states, including Massachusetts and Michigan.

Their efforts are being funded in part by vitamin companies, which make many of the dietary supplements, herbal remedies and other treatments promoted by naturopaths.

The problem is, most of those remedies don't actually do anything.

“You don’t want to regulate the snake-oil salesmen,” said Steven Salzberg, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins. “They don’t offer something that works to begin with.”

The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) is planning a series of consumer health fairs this summer, and the organization is launching an aggressive public-relations campaign to get naturopaths licensed in all 50 states by 2025.

Naturopaths are currently licensed in 17 states, in addition to Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and 14 state legislatures are considering bills that would broaden their authority -- including the ability to prescribe certain drugs.

About 4,400 naturopaths are licensed in the U.S., and they're generally allowed to perform some medical tests, make diagnoses and prescribe some medications, while unlicensed naturopaths are basically limited to giving advice about healthy lifestyles.

Naturopathic and homeopathic remedies are promoted by celebrities such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow and reality TV star Kristin Cavallari.

A Canadian couple was recently convicted in the death of their toddler son after giving him naturopathic remedies such as maple syrup, horseradish smoothies and olive leaf extract instead of seeking medical care for meningitis.

Many naturopaths say licensing ensures only the best-trained alternative medicine practitioners will be allowed to treat patients -- but critics say even licensed naturopaths are poorly trained.

“I spent three times as much time learning how to give a patient sugar than learning how to prescribe a pill,” said Britt Marie Hermes, who trained as a naturopath before pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical research.

Recent investigations by the Australian government and American Chemical Society, a scientific organization of chemists, found that most homeopathic remedies are no more effective than placebos.

The Australian report, which reviewed 176 studies that examined more than 60 diseases and illnesses, found no health conditions that could be better treated by homeopathic remedies than a placebo.

Doctors say many homeopathic remedies are mostly harmless if patients also seek science-based medical care -- but that's not always the case.

A recent study found breast cancer patients who followed alternative medicine practices were 84 percent less likely to undergo chemotherapy, and children whose parents take them to naturopaths are highly unlikely to complete vaccination regimens recommended by doctors.

Stat reported that vitamin companies -- such as Emerson Ecologics -- are closely tied to the AANP, which is pushing for expanded use of homeopathic remedies.

Emerson gave $50,000 to the group and hired AANP's former president, Jacyln Chasse, to oversee scientific and regulatory affairs.

The New Hampshire-based company gave $10,000 last year to a professional group for naturopaths in Michigan, which used the money to pay a lobbyist and promote licensure in that state.

The group's president credits Emerson's funding for helping to convince a House committee to approve a bill to allow licensed naturopaths the ability to conduct physicals and do blood work and imaging.

Naturopaths haven't had much success in gaining new authority in recent years, but they're optimistic that increased funding for public relations campaigns and lobbying will help legitimize their profession -- and gain access to Medicare funds.