In July 2007, just seven months after opening my clinic doors, I was issued a Cease and Desist from the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure (MSBML) for practicing medicine without a license. Since 2000, according to the MSBML Rules and Regulations, only physicians or dentists were legally allowed to practice acupuncture in Mississippi. This narrowly drawn rule disregarded any other form of acupuncture practitioner, greatly limiting access for the citizens of Mississippi, especially considering there are only a handful of doctors who practice acupuncture in the state. In an effort to pull together support for nonphysician acupuncturists, I founded MOMA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enacting fair and safe acupuncture laws in Mississippi.
In November 2007, Betsy Smith, deputy director of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), put me in contact with Ayres Haxton, an attorney from Natchez, Miss., who is also a former legislator in the Mississippi House of Representatives. We began hitting the Capitol marble in January 2008 with HB 724. As introduced in the House, HB 724 was a "dry run" that enabled MOMA to understand the major sticking points in the bill. After narrowly passing the House Committee for Public Health and Welfare, it was quickly squashed in the House Chamber on the last calendar day. MOMA decided that its next approach in 2009 would have to be a referral bill. In order for acupuncturists to establish their profession in Mississippi, MOMA would have to work with the spirit of compromise and usher in a bill that required referral from a medical doctor.
As 2008 passed by, Dennis Holmes and I, two of only three NCCAOM-certified practitioners in Mississippi, worked at fundraising and awareness for acupuncture. On weekends, Dennis Holmes set up an informational booth at our local health food store and taught tai chi to the public. I gathered research material and assembled a brochure that was sent to all the constituents in the state who had shown interest in helping this legislation in 2009. I asking them to get involved and write their legislators. This brochure, along with a letter from MOMA, went to every single representative and senator in the state just before Thanksgiving break.
Although I live in the Jackson area, I commute three hours weekly to Memphis, Tenn., to practice at the Acupuncture and Healing Arts Medical Group. My letter invited all 176 legislators (including the Governor and Lt. Governor) to come to Memphis for a free treatment. I did this to: help them more fully understand acupuncture and Oriental medicine; have a positive testimonial; and comprehend how much effort so many Mississippians, including practitioners, were going through in order to receive treatment from a licensed acupuncturist.
The 2009 Legislative Session began in early January. MOMA reserved the Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 22 and set up a booth in an attempt to educate the public and legislators about acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Several practitioners from out-of-state came to our aid by coming to Jackson to help during Acupuncture Day at the Capitol. It was a success! Although it was not legal for our practitioners to give demonstrations (we asked permission from the MSBML, to no avail), we were still able to hand out information and lure them to our booth with delicious muffins. The Chairman of the House Public Health and Welfare Committee, Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville), was kind enough to sponsor our bill. With the help of Rep. Bryant W. Clark (D-Pickens), the bill (HB 458) had strong potential. Ayres Haxton's former membership in the House of Representatives paved a smooth road for MOMA to speak to legislators about HB 458.
The Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) tried to block this bill in several different ways. Ultimately, because HB 458 utilized the NCCAOM exam as its minimum standard for eligibility for licensure, the MSMA did not have solid ground on which to stand with their arguments. Their basic contention was with the funding. Originally, HB 458 would have created the State Board of Oriental Medicine, which would have cost the state. After several amendments, the MSBML agreed for the acupuncturists to have an Advisory Council that utilizes fees for licensure to fund the Act's administration.
After passage to the Senate, MOMA had another miraculous turn of events. John Dennery, lobbyist and famous retired restaurateur, came to our aid. For more than 30 years, Dennery's Restaurant served members of the House and Senate, along with many national and international dignitaries. I rejoiced on Dennery's first day at the Capitol when he and the Lt. Governor shook hands on a first-name basis. Although Dennery's good reputation preceded him, it did not mean that the fight was over.
Another amazing stroke of luck brought Dr. Michael Albert onto the scene. Dr. Albert, a board certified gerontologist of 20 years, had been driving to Memphis every 10 days to find relief at the Acupuncture and Healing Arts Medical Group where I work. After we had a few conversations, Dr. Albert stepped up to help by testifying in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Several supporters of MOMA were there to witness an hour-and-a-half testimony from myself, Dennis Holmes, Dr. Albert and former patients speaking on behalf of HB 458.
In opposition, the University of Mississippi Medical Center had two medical doctors testify against the bill. In the end, it was evident the two doctors from UMMC were not familiar enough with the bill to be able to defend their stance and the Committee was won over by the outpouring of public support for HB 458. Our sponsor in the Senate, Terry C. Burton (R-Newton), was a strong leader and a force to be reckoned with. Burton brought HB 458 to the forefront in the Senate Chamber where it passed unanimously. Within the month, HB 458 was signed by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Compared to most states, this legislation may seem very restrictive. However, there is no way that our profession would have been able to establish itself without the referral aspect in HB 458. It is a real coup to have this initial licensure after just two years of lobbying efforts. It is considered lightning speed, according to most with legislative experience.
Mississippi only has three NCCAOM practitioners listed. This really goes to show that perseverance and determination make an enormous amount of difference. Dennis Holmes and I shuffled our schedules to allow us to be present at the Capitol at least three days a week in order to put a human face to this cause. No one involved in this process made any money working on this legislation. It is truly uplifting to know that passion and commitment to what is good and right prevailed.
Jerusha DeGroote Stephens is president of the Mississippi Oriental Medicine Association.
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