Safe harbor laws protect unlicensed practitioners from being charged with violating the Medical Practice Act or other professional licensing practice acts, as long as the practitioners disclose their education to potential customers and avoid certain prohibited acts, according to Anne Tenner, staff attorney for the National Health Freedom Coalition (NHFC), a group that supports the creation of safe harbor laws. Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma and Rhode Island have safe harbor laws. Of them, only Minnesota’s regulates massage therapists. According to John Melnychuk, RSHom (NA), C.C.H., a California homeopath and president of the California Health Freedom Coalition, the educationdisclosure component of safe harbor laws helps consumers protect themselves.
“Someone with no training can print business cards and say they are a traditional naturopath [for example], but it would [be] quite doubtful if the public would engage with that person,” he said. Unlicensed naturopaths have been practicing in California since 1902, but in 2017 the state’s 16-year-old safe harbor law was tested. Language in a bill introduced this year would have prohibited use of the titles naturopath, naturopathic practitioner and traditional naturopath by practitioners already practicing legally. The effort to prohibit the titles was supported by those who say allowing laypeople to practice naturopathy is confusing to consumers— because the state is also home to doctors of naturopathy (NDs), who have graduated with 4,100 hours of education from an accredited school, passed a national competency exam, and are licensed by the State of California Bureau of Naturopathic Medicine as primary care providers. (Unlicensed naturopaths may not diagnose or treat, and their scope relates to lifestyle changes. NDs may offer more in-depth procedures such as diagnosing, treating, administering injections and prescribing certain substances.)
Ultimately, the language was removed from the bill before it was signed into law, following NHFC’s work alongside the California Health Freedom Coalition and Sunshine Health Freedom Foundation. Melnychuk said Senator Gerry Hill (D-CA) and Assemblyman Evan Lowe were also instrumental in the victory. Rebecca Mitchell, executive officer of the California Naturopathic Medicine Committee, told MASSAGE Magazine the committee plans to move forward with another attempt to disallow laypeople from using the naturopathic titles. “[Use of such titles] causes a tremendous burden and confusion for consumers who are not aware that a naturopathic practitioner, for instance, is providing unlicensed care,” she said. According to Melnychuk, if the titles disappear, so will the jobs of the state’s unlicensed practitioners of naturopathy. He said he believes the fight is far from done, admitting that in California, “We expect an ongoing battle.” It’s a battle that could be waged far beyond the borders of the Golden State. National Health Freedom Action (NHFA), described on its site as NHFC’s sister organization and an entity that lobbies for health care freedom, has plans underway to work toward safe harbor legislation in all 50 states—and Tenner said NHFC is already supporting grassroots groups in Wisconsin, Oregon, Missouri, Washington, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and South Dakota with information and resources to create such laws. —Karen Menehan