State Sen. Josh Harkins
Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood Credit: Gil Ford Photography

A bill to license naturopathic medical practitioners passed out of two Senate committees Tuesday, even as some committee members admitted they weren’t sure how to define the practice.

Senate Bill 2511 would allow anyone who has graduated from an approved naturopathic medical program to practice in Mississippi. It also would establish a regulatory board to oversee the practice in the state.

The legislation has support across the aisle, with Senate Democrats and Republicans arguing it lets patients pick from a wider range of providers and treatments.

“I am a big supporter of this legislation. I think it offers more options in Mississippi than we already have,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson.

But just what these options are remain to be defined.

“I guess I have cold feet because I don’t know what naturopathy is, and I don’t know what training someone gets,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Bryan asked the bill’s author, Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, if he could define it or elaborate on the training. Harkins said he could not. The bill passed unanimously out of the Public Health and Welfare Committee and the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee but with a reverse repealer, requiring legislators to continue working on the bill.

Only 16 states currently allow the practice of naturopathic medicine. And several senators seemed timid about licensing a relatively untested field, despite several safety nets that place most of the practice under the supervision of traditional medicine.

Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch Credit: Gil Ford Photography

Under the bill’s provisions, naturopathic practitioners are not allowed to perform surgeries. Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, who is a practicing optometrist, pointed to a section of the bill that would allow naturopaths to remove foreign bodies from superficial tissue and wondered if that might open the door to more extensive surgical procedures.

“And I don’t know that this practice and this profession is really qualified to do that,” Parker said. “I think that there could be some misunderstanding of the removal of foreign bodies. … That’s one of the things I do, and that’s one thing where my patients have the most fear.”

The bill also establishes a Board of Naturopathic Medicine to advise the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, which will govern the practice in the state. All naturopathic doctors must also be overseen by a licensed physician.

The Mississippi State Medical Association did not respond to a request for comment by publication. But the association’s president, Dr. Lee Voulters, has previously said that he would be in favor of a bill, as long as the Board of Medical Licensure oversaw the practitioners.

“(Naturopathic doctors) seem to rely on traditional medicine for the majority of the things they treat, and I think that’s a good thing,” Voulters said in October. “As long as it doesn’t get in the way of a traditional medical treatment and the patient feels it’s beneficial, and they’re being monitored by the state medical licensing board, I have no problem with it.”

Under the bill, anyone who holds a degree in naturopathy from one of the 10 Universities of Naturopathic Medicine in the United States and Canada can get their license. But Parker pointed out that relying on an out-of-state school to tell the state whether its graduates are qualified is an unusual arrangement. In addition to graduating from medical school, medical doctors must also take a test to become board certified in Mississippi. Currently, no schools of naturopathic medicine exist in Mississippi.

“We’re kind of counting on the training of the school to establish the precedent for the qualifications of the practitioners. And I just want to make it very clear to this committee that there are a number of professions around the state where that is not the case,” Parker said. “There are a number of professions where this training and the school are one thing. But if they come from another state (that’s different).” 

Although questions about the bill abound, naturopathic medicine is not a new topic in the state. A similar bill last year, introduced late in the session, failed to get traction. Harkins also held a Senate hearing on the topic back in October.

During that meeting, naturopathic practitioners and people who had received the care testified about the strengths of the practice. Ron Matis, whose wife Nicole received naturopathic treatment outside the United States for her chemotherapy last year, worked with Harkins on the legislation. He said he was thrilled that the bill would be moving to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I think scope of practice is going to be the thing that we really have to work through and make sure it’s done in collaboration with doctors in Mississippi so they can make sure with this bill that naturopathic medicine is not intended to be a replacement for a regular doctor,” Matis said. “… The whole idea and what we’ve been communicating to legislators is that it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.