Consumer Health Digest #04-10
Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
March 8, 2004
Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.
GAO warns against unlicensed health insurance plans. The General Accounting Office has issued two reports concerning the sale of health insurance plans that lack legal authorization. These plans place the buyer at risk for financial disaster if serious illness strikes. One report focuses on consumer vulnerability. [Private health insurance: Employers and individuals are vulnerable to unauthorized or bogus entities selling coverage. #GAO-04-312, Feb 2004] The other notes that from 2000 to 2002, 144 unauthorized entities enrolled at least 15,000 employers and more than 200,000 policyholders who got stuck for over $200 million in unpaid claims. The investigators found that many of the entities bore names similar to those of legitimate companies [Private health insurance: Unauthorized or bogus entities have exploited employers and individuals seeking affordable coverage. #GAO-04-512T, March 3, 2004] In response to the report, the Health Insurance Institute of America is again urging the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to create an on-line database of licensed health insurance companies so that anyone can easily check the legitimacy of companies offering health insurance products. Meanwhile, the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud offers ten warning signs of a possible swindle:
- The coverage costs 25% or more below the norm, yet promises generous benefits and a large provider network.
- The plan readily accepts people with serious illnesses and other medical conditions that other plans normally reject.
- The insurance has few or no underwriting guidelines -- the agent or rep appears almost too eager to sign you up.
- You're approached by an insurance agent, phone or direct mail. Honest group plans normally are sponsored by your employer -- and aren't sold directly to individuals.
- The plan isn't licensed in your state, and the agent (falsely) assures you the federal ERISA law exempts the plan from state licensing.
- The plan seems like insurance, but the agent or rep avoids calling "insurance," and instead uses evasive terms such as "benefits."
- The agent or rep doesn't have clear answers to your questions, seems ill-informed, or avoids sharing information.
- You've never heard of that health insurance company -- and nobody else has, either.
- You have to join an "association" or "union" to obtain the health coverage. But you get no voting rights, receive no bylaws or other material, and aren't involved in the group's activities.
- Your hospital keeps calling you to complain that your health plan isn't paying your medical bills. Often the plan's reps keep making flimsy excuses, or stop returning phone calls altogether.
Most chiropractic school Web sites have unsubstantiated claims. Chirobase has posted examples of improper claims made through the Internet by 14 of the 17 U.S.-based chiropractic schools. [Barrett S. Improper claims on chiropractic college Web sites. Chirobase, March 4, 2004] The study updates findings published last year by two chiropractic educators who examined claims made in July 2001 and concluded: "More than half of the chiropractic colleges in Canada and the United States make unsubstantiated claims for clinical theories or methods on the Web sites. This behavior likely reflects what is taught in the schools. Chiropractors' quest for greater legitimacy and cultural authority is retarded by the tendency." [Sikorski DM, Grod JP. The unsubstantiated Web site claims of chiropractic colleges in Canada and the United States. Journal of Chiropractic Education 17:113-119, 2003] The Chirobase survey found that nearly all of the claims challenged in the 2001 survey are still posted on their respective sites and that several others were present but not mentioned. The most egregious were:
- "Research and clinical experience support chiropractic care for common pediatric conditions such as colic, recurrent otitis media, bedwetting, birth trauma, and common childhood injuries." (Northwestern College of Chiropractic)
- "Almost all ailments or conditions are viewed within the profession as being amenable to homeopathic treatment. Homeopathy is best known, however, for its ability to treat chronic ailments. Skin diseases, chronic gastric and intestinal disorders, chronic fatigue syndromes, migraines, asthma, allergic disorders, menstrual complaints, other hormonal disorders, arthritis, psychological disorders, and so on are viewed as being potentially improved by the application of Homeopathy. Gross structural and pathological changes are not viewed as being strongly influenced by Homeopathy." (Northwestern College of Chiropractic)
- "Since the nervous system controls the human body by providing the 'life force,' the whole body may benefit; and, therefore, chiropractic care may benefit the body with almost any health conditions." (Parker College of Chiropractic)
In 2001, Sikorski and Grod noted similar problems with brochures published by eight major state and national chiropractic organizations. [Barrett S. Educators blast mainstream chiropractic brochures. Chirobase March 8, 2002]
FDA petitioned for carbohydrate content claims. The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) wants the FDA to establish new regulations for carbohydrate nutrient content claims. The group's petition asks seeks permission to label foods and beverages as "carbohydrate-free," "low carbohydrate," "good source of carbohydrate," and "excellent source of carbohydrate." Many manufacturers want to identify foods for people who want to follow the low-carbohydrate (high-fat) Atkins diet. GMA's petition characterizes the situation as a simple matter of helping them find what they want. However, permitting "carbohydrate-free" labels would falsely imply that carbohydrates are generally bad for people and should be avoided.
Chiropractor sentenced to prison for insurance fraud. Joanne M. Gallagher, D.C., who practiced for close to 20 years in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, has been fined $9,100 and sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by 2 years of probation. The sentence was announced in a courtroom packed by nearly 200 people whom she led in prayer. [Shellem P. Charismatic chiropractor gets 1 1/2 years. Harrisburg Patriot News, March 9, 2004] In 2003, she pled guilty in to insurance fraud related to the death of a 30-year-old epileptic woman whom she treated with cranial therapy. Court documents indicated that the patient died of severe seizures after following Gallagher's advice to stop taking her anticonvulsive medication. The fraud involved submitting insurance claims falsely describing "meningeal balancing" as spinal manipulation. After learning that her fatal advice had been tape-recorded, Gallagher pled guilty to one count of mail fraud under an agreement that she surrender her chiropractic license in 45 days and agree not to resume practice unless cleared to do so by a federal court judge. Chirobase has posted a detailed report.
British cancer quack receives prison sentence. Reginald Gill, a self-described "wellness practitioner" from Bournemouth, England, has been sentenced to a year in prison for deceiving a dying man by selling him a briefcase-sized IFAS high-frequency device with claims that it would "kill" his pancreatic cancer. Testimony in the case indicated that Gill treated the patient several times and then sold him the device for £2500 after buying it from an Australian company for less than £200. The patient died ten weeks later. Gill testified that he had not promised a cure but merely said the device would "help the body heal itself" and would enable the it to use nutrients in a drink he also provided.
Florida committee opposes naturopathic law expansion. The Florida House of Representatives Committee on Health Care has concluded that naturopathic licensing is not cost-effective and that expanding naturopathy's scope of practice might be harmful. [Sunrise report on proposed licensure of naturopathic physicians, January 2004]
This page was posted on March 9, 2004.