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A 'grave error': France to phase out coverage for homeopathy

PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP | A picture taken on September 3, 2018 shows tubes of homeopathic granules at a pharmacy in Lille.

In a country where nearly 60% of the population uses homeopathic remedies, the French ministry of health’s decision to slash reimbursements for the alternative remedies has sparked outrage among users of alternative medicine.

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For the 38 million people in France who depend on homeopathic remedies to cure insomnia, backaches and other medical conditions, getting a good night’s sleep just became a little more difficult.

“Homeopathic medicines do not provide sufficient public health benefits to justify their reimbursement by the federal government,”the ministry of health announced in a statement released on Wednesday.

“These remedies have not demonstrated their effectiveness in remedying illness, nor have they proven to reduce the consumption of other medicines,” added a committee of experts commissioned by the ministry, a claim that homeopathic medicine producers find outrageous.

“The attack on homeopathy is unfounded and totally incomprehensible,” French company Boiron said in a statement released in April.

Boiron, the world’s leader in homeopathic products, has been fighting for months against proposed cuts to federal support for homeopathy, an alternative medical practice that relies on the use of natural substances to heal the body instead of chemical products. Homeopathic remedies can range from chamomile tea for insomnia to arnica for arthritis.

The natural medicine giant had even requested an urgent meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, but all in vain. Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn announced Tuesday that the government would end support for all homeopathic medicines by 2021.

Phased out

Buzyn reported that cuts to funding will occur in two phases. On January 1, 2020, the government will first reduce financial support for homeopathic medicines from 30% to 15% reimbursement of the total cost. According to Buzyn, this year-long reduction will “permit patients, doctors, and businesses to adapt to the change”. On January 1 of the following year, the ministry will cut all remaining funding for the alternative medicines.

According to official figures, French social security reimbursed patients 126.8 million in 2018 for homeopathic treatment out of the 20 billion refunded in total.

Antoine Demonceaux, a family doctor in Reims in eastern France, has been practising homeopathy for 35 years and told FRANCE 24 that the government’s decision is “a grave error”.

While many believe that the results of homeopathy are nothing more than a placebo effect, several studies have indicated that homeopathic remedies do have some “evidence of efficacy” in curing cold symptoms and certain respiratory conditions.

“I’ve treated three generations of patients who are all satisfied and in very good health,” Demonceaux said, adding that the High Authority of Health’s study used methods which do not apply to homeopathic medicine. He said its decision was made without taking into consideration the arguments of homeopathic doctors and patients.

“These medicines cost society very little, but produce a lot of good.”

Cultural phenomenon, national debate

A 2018 survey from market research company Ipsos reported that 77% of French people have used homeopathic remedies at least once, 58% have used them “several times” and more than 40% of people have used homeopathy for over 10 years.

For regular users, the success of homeopathy is obvious. Seventy-four percent of French users say that they consider homeopathic remedies to be effective, with the same number reporting that they would be opposed to discontinuing reimbursement.

“Homeopathy offers a safe, accessible, and personalised medical response to each patient,” said Boiron, though clarifying that homeopathic medicines should be used “in combination with other products”.

Dr. Demonceaux agrees that homeopathic remedies alone cannot be used as a cure for life-threatening diseases. However, he notes that, for the majority of patients he treats, homeopathy alone can be used to improve day-to-day health. He argues that these types of treatments are especially important for certain populations.

“This decision is going to have a dramatic effect on many low-income consumers,” he said. “These populations often lack access to good food or daily vitamins, and so their overall health is at much greater risk. They are the ones who most benefit from homeopathic remedies, and yet again, we are putting these most fragile populations in danger. It’s unacceptable.”

However, for anti-homeopathy organisations like the medical collective FakeMed, the proposal to gradually phase out support for the medicines is absurd. “Going to 15 percent reimbursement makes no sense,” François Morel, one doctor from the group, told AFP.

Buzyn is unfazed by the controversy that her announcement has created. For her, the new measure is less about a switch to conventional medicine, and more about reducing the use of prescriptions altogether.

“It’s possible to leave the doctor’s office without a prescription!” said Buzyn in an interview with French daily Le Parisien. “Let’s take advantage of this debate on homeopathy to reflect more broadly on our use of medicine. The ultimate goal is to consume less."

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