A clause of the new health care law, also known as the Affordable Care Act, may bring the level of acupuncturists and other alternative medicine practitioners to the same level as medical doctors — that is, depending on whether individual states recognize them as licensed health care providers.

Section 2706 of the health law requires that insurance companies “shall not discriminate” against health providers who have a state-recognized license.

Alternative medicine ranges widely from acupuncture to herbal remedies to mind-body therapies. Little research has been done on whether alternative and complementary medicine, which generally use a more holistic approach than modern medicine, is effective. However, the potential benefits of alternative medicine will be a research focus of the new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which was created under the health reform law.

According to the National Institutes of Health, complementary and alternative medicine has become increasingly more popular in the U.S. The NIH lists acupuncture, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, diet-based therapies, energy healing, movement therapies like Pilates, Tai chi, and yoga as types of alternative medicine. About 38 percent of adults and 12 percent of children in the U.S. are using some form of alternative medicine, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports.

The report released by the NCCAM found that the largest group of people using alternative medicine tend to be women from higher-income and higher-education backgrounds.

“It’s a very positive thing,” Margaret Freihaut, insurance committee chairwoman for the Missouri State Chiropractors Association, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the health care law clause.

There is a catch. Not all practitioners will be able to be fully reimbursed by insurance companies if the particular state doesn’t recognized the profession as a licensed practice. For example, since acupuncture isn't recognized by Missouri as a licensed practice, acupunturists in the state will not be fully reimbursed by insurance companies. Under the Affordable Care Act, each state will define its essential benefits plan as what will be covered under insurance.

The attempt to incorporate naturopathic medicine into the health reform law aims to bring more options to people who believe alternative medicine is good preventative care, even if it doesn’t necessarily help cure specific diseases.

“It’s time that our health care system takes an integrative approach … whether conventional or alternative,” Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told Kaiser Health News in an e-mail. Harkin penned the anti-discrimination provision in the law. “Patients want good outcomes with good value, and complementary and alternative therapies can provide both.”