New York Acupuncturists Need Their Use of Herbs Established in Law

Those of you who are acupuncturists practicing Chinese herbal medicine outside of New York may be surprised to learn that the use of herbs is not established in our acupuncture law. Some acupuncturists who practice in New York and recommend herbal formulas or prepared formulas sold as supplements may also be surprised to learn that the New York State Education Department believes that such activities lie outside the scope of practice of a licensed acupuncturist.

Although I was trained and practiced in California, I moved to New York in late 1992 where I have worked running various schools and clinics, teaching, and seeing patients. Over the last five years I’ve been working with a very dedicated group of people on adding the use of herbs and dietary supplements to the scope of practice in New York State Licensed Acupuncturists. If you are reading this and are surprised to find out that herbs are considered to be outside the scope of practice of Licensed Acupuncturists in New York you are not alone.

New York’s acupuncture law is one of the oldest in the United States. Licensed practice was established there in 1975 and in 1991 the law was changed to provide educational standards for training programs and to use a standardized examination. Since that time New York has become home to some great acupuncture schools, I know because I have been privileged to either work at or run four of them. All of these programs provide formal training in Chinese herbal medicine, run herb dispensaries and train acupuncture students in clinics that provide both herbs and acupuncture to the public. Some have been in operation now for close to twenty years. All of the New York State acupuncture schools that provide training in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have had their curricula (including clinical training in herbs) approved by the same agency that now questions whether acupuncturists can recommend and provide herbs to their patients.

What happened to get me interested in herbal legislation was that in early 2005 an officer of the New York State Education Department called my wife Marnae’s and my practice. He called in relation to our support for a colleague’s temporary license. However, when he heard our answering machine message indicating that we offered Chinese herbs, he proceeded to leave a long message threatening to immediately take action against our licenses unless we immediately stopped indicating that Chinese herbs were part of our acupuncture practice. Of course, we did as we were asked, but we started to investigate. We found out that due to a change in leadership at the agency that oversees acupuncture in NY State, the New York State Education Department Office of the Professions, the recommendation and preparation of herbs was no longer viewed as a typical adjunct of acupuncture practice, but as an activity that a Licensed Acupuncturist could not engage in. On the other hand if you ran a health food store you could do anything you wanted with herbs. Marnae and I were shocked.

We weren’t the only ones. It became apparent that other acupuncturists had had similar experiences. By late 2006 conversations about the need of New York Licensed Acupuncturists to be able to use herbs without the possible threat to their license began within our community. Various practitioners began to come together to lay the ground work for building a consensus plan.

In 2007 the same officer that had called our practice, sent a letter to our profession’s insurer stating, among other opinions, that “New York State does not recognize the use of herbs, or oriental/herbal medicine.” This raised a critical problem for all Licensed Acupuncturist preparing or recommending herbs in New York. It raised the very real possibility that an activity, routinely practiced by many, might not be protected by our professional liability insurance. Additionally, it suggested that our state regulatory agency was fully prepared to take action against practitioners who made herbs part of their practice. In fact, conversations with officers from the state suggested that they believed that a Licensed Acupuncturist who wanted to provide herbs to patients should run a separate herb store from which she or he might sell herbs and herbal products, without providing any guidance to the patient concerning which to buy or use. This opinion was so far at variance with accepted practice in New York State since the early days of the license in 1975, and even since 1991, that our community became very active.

NYSAC was formed that year. Through the efforts and hard work of people such as Kathleen Golden LAc, past President of the Acupuncture Society of New York (ASNY), Marilee Murphy, RN, LAc then Dean of the Finger Lakes School of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and Kathy Taromina, LAc Director of the Touro College Graduate Program in Oriental Medicine the New York State Acupuncture Coalition (NYSAC) was formed. Michael Jabbour, LAc, the current President of ASNY and Vice-President of AAAOM has provided years of dedicated effort to this project. Over the years many other individuals have contributed enormous amounts of time and energy to this project.

Through a series of well attended town hall meetings in 2007 and 2008 community consensus around the language and goal of the bill was developed. Our initiative received support from a wide range of New York State and national organizations. We were proud to create an inclusive bill that received support from the Chinese practitioner community, both The American Traditional Chinese Medicine Society and The United Alliance of New York Licensed Acupuncturists strongly support this legislation. We wanted a bill that would support and protect the people who made the use of Chinese herbs possible in New York, and so were very glad to have the support of the Association of Chinese Herbalists of New York. In addition, we received support from the Acupuncture Society of New York , New York State acupuncture schools, businesses, practitioners and patients. On a national level, The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine , the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and many others endorsed our legislation.

It’s been a long and hard struggle. Our bill has been introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly over the last two sessions. We have strong bipartisan support. The New York State Senate passed the bill last session, but we were not able to bring the bill to the floor of the assembly for a vote. Our bill has been introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate this session. We have a great deal of work to do in the next several months to move this critical legislation forward.