Acupuncturists in Wyoming are celebrating the passage of a bill that will for the first time regulate the practice here.

The bill, House Bill 165, was passed by the Legislature and signed last month by Gov. Matt Mead. It creates a board of acupuncture with five governor-appointed members and a mandate to approve license applications and create standards for licensed practitioners.

It’s the product of years of work by acupuncturists here, who eventually realized that they needed to bring together practitioners in the state to support a measure that, in their eyes, served the public and their own community’s interests.

Jude B. Sandoval, who runs Sunlight Acupuncture and Wellness in Casper, helped form the Wyoming Acupuncture Society two years ago. The group elected officers and held meetings starting last spring. There were five reasons the group wanted the bill passed, Sandoval said:

To protect people in Wyoming who seek the services of an acupuncturist.

To help treat people in pain, which hopefully will reduce opiate use.

To spur economic growth by further growing the health care industry here.

To increase accessibility. With licensed practitioners in a well-regulated industry, insurance companies are more likely to cover acupuncture treatments.

To further increase the integration of acupuncture into hospitals and the broader medical field.

Previously, Wyoming was one of four states with no laws to control acupuncture. The lack of oversight allowed practitioners who’d had their licenses stripped in regulated states to come here, officials said. National groups, like the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, could do nothing about unlicensed acupuncturists working here.

Mina Larson, who works for the NCCAOM, said a practitioner who lost his license elsewhere “state shopped” before coming to unregulated Wyoming. Though acupuncturists here raised the alarm, Larson said her group was powerless.

“We revoked his certification, but we can’t do anything more because there’s no one to report it to,” she said. “It’s important — they’re putting needles in people!”

Conversely, while the lack of regulations allowed everyone to work as an acupuncturist, it also technically prevented anyone from practicing.

“Technically we’ve all been practicing medicine without a license,” said Whitney Fessler, the president of the acupuncture society. “So the medical board was hugely supportive of this bill. They were a great ally for us.”

Sandoval said it was understood that no charges would be filed, but the bill acts as a way to legitimize licensed practitioners while preventing sketchier acupuncturists from continuing to work in Wyoming.

That should mean an increase in business for licensed professionals here, officials said. For instance, if more insurance companies, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, begin covering acupuncture, more people might be able to see Sandoval or Fessler.

“It’ll definitely increase business for us, or it should,” said Fessler, who’s based in Jackson. She added that acupuncturists who left Wyoming to build their businesses in better-regulated states might return now, increasing the number of clinics and boosting the profile of the industry.

Fessler said acupuncture in general has been growing in Wyoming. Twenty years ago, she said there were probably no more than five acupuncturists in the state. Now, there are around 30. The passage of the bill will only help feed the industry here.

“I have seen acupuncture grow tremendously because it works,” said Larson, of the NCCAOM. “It’s effective; people are drawn to it. I’ve seen more people practicing acupuncture because consumer demand has risen.”

She added that organizations from chiropractors to insurance companies to cruise ships want the services of licensed acupuncturists.

To be licensed with Larson’s organization, an aspiring practitioner must pass at least three exams: a theory test, a test on the different acupuncture points and an anatomy and physiology exam. A fourth test, on Chinese herbology, is available for acupuncturists who want to offer that.

It isn’t cheap to become licensed. Larson said there’s a one-time fee of at least $400 to become part of her organization. Then, each of the four exams costs $300.

On top of that, to become licensed in Wyoming will likely cost about $1,000 in the first few years of the board’s existence, Fessler said.

“We knew it would be expensive,” said Sandoval. “We still saw the importance of regulating our profession over the nuisance of paying a large fee.”

The bill also creates what Sandoval and Fessler called “tiered licensing.” It’s a way to allow people who aren’t full practitioners to continue to offer a sub-form of acupuncture, known as the five-needle protocol. It’s a technique applied to a person’s ear that’s often used to treat people in drug or alcohol recovery or to help veterans cope with any stresses they may have.

Sara Bursac, the executive director of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, which is based in Wyoming, said she wasn’t sure what effect the bill would have on her group or on the volunteers, as they often are, who administer the five-point protocol. While people using the technique will have to be approved, she said she hopes the fees charged to them won’t be excessive or prohibitive.

She said she has hope that the bill might actually increase the availability of her service. Statewide mandated licensure might increase the number of providers and people who want to become trained to provide the service, she said, which will in turn increase the number of people who know about and seek out the treatment.

Currently, there are about 90 people in Wyoming trained to perform the ear acupuncture, she said.

While the full effects of the legislation might not be fully grasped until the governor appoints the board and the board begins crafting its rules in the next several months, practitioners agreed that increased oversight would be a good thing for the industry.

“Wyoming prides itself on the fact that we regulate fewer professions than any other state,” Sandoval said. “That’s great for accountants, but if you’re going to pierce the skin, we should have some regulation around that.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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