California’s Health Freedom Law: 14 Years Strong – John Melnychuk

On September 23, 2002, history was made in California. With the unanimous support of the legislature, Governor Davis signed into law SB-577 (2002), sponsored by the California Health Freedom Coalition (CHFC).

As of January 1, 2003, California law recognized the professional legitimacy of alternative and complementary health care practitioners and healers allowing them, for the first time, to be able to legally provide and advertise their services in California.

Governor Davis noted, SB-577 (2002) “will ease access to alternative and complementary health care options for all Californians.” He also stated “the bill provides adequate safeguards for California consumers and enables them to make an informed choice regarding their personal health care.”

I am not an attorney; none of the following should be considered as legal opinion or advice. Readers are encouraged to study the text of SB-577 (2002), the appended Memorandum, and to consult an attorney familiar with California health care law for guidance. More information for consumers and practitioners is available at

What is the CHFC, and who ran the project to change the law?

The CHFC is a not-for-profit 501(c)4 corporation of an ad-hoc group of consumers and practitioners that understands the value of safe, unlicensed healing practices. I founded and led the CHFC; Amy Lansky, PhD, Jennifer Doolin, and David Palmer were my key partners.

I was able to assemble an amazing team. I raised 95% of the money for SB-577 (2002) and found the political capital to pass the law. Two exceptional professionals helped us in Sacramento: George Steffes, our seasoned, effective lobbyist; and, William Abalona, Esq., our brilliant, kind and patient attorney.

There are lots of other people who claim credit for creating and passing SB-577 (2002); and they may or may not have been helpful in a supportive way, or not at all. What is absolutely true, however, is that SB-577 (2002) have would not have become law without six key players: Melnychuk, Lansky, Doolin, Palmer, Steffes, and Abalona.

CHFC had the support of many other groups of consumers and practitioner groups. Ayurvedists, non-licensed naturopaths, massage therapists, colon hydrotherapists, herbalists and others helped us.

Dr. Richard Hiltner, MD, brought the support of the California Homeopathic Medical Society. Michael Quinn, of Hahnemann Pharmacy, helped us early on with $1,000 of support. It came at a perfect time – our morale took a big jump with his generosity. The North American Society of Homeopaths was friendly to SB-577 (2002). Richard Pitt was a hugely effective ally in rallying the Bay Area homeopathic community.

California SB-577 (2002) was the second, so-called “Health Freedom Law” to pass in any state in modern times. The first Health Freedom law was passed in Minnesota, by the National Health Freedom Coalition and Diane Miller, Esq. Ms. Miller was a key advisor to our California group. Since 2002, Ms. Miller and NHFC have provided leadership to pass Health Freedom laws in 11 other states, so far. She’s a health freedom hero. Clinton Miller (not a relative of Diane) was a huge inspiration and champion of the “Health Freedom” movement.

Our friends at the National Center for Homeopathy refused to support SB-577 (2002). At that time the NCH could not bring itself to reach down to non-licensed persons and help them with legislative reform.

Near to that time, a solitary nurse practitioner that used homeopathy was under investigation. Pressure from eminent physicians in California came to the NCH. Leaders at the NCH responded. NCH sent $10,000 to support this person’s legal defense since he was under the supervision of a California MD. The California doctors worried that an administrative law judge who would decide upon the Nurse Practitioner’s case might make a ruling that would be unfavorable to physicians who practiced homeopathy. This nurse practitioner deserved support from all of us.

Meanwhile, our legislative project for SB-577 (2002) was “Too much of a hot potato,” said the then President of the NCH. Never mind $1.00, we could not get even a letter, or any public declaration of support from the NCH. That’s a fact.

That decision of the NCH to purposely be silent, and to not support CHFC and SB-577 (2002) to make it easier for 35 million people to receive homeopathy still astonishes me. It shows where the NCH had its priorities at that time. We professional, but non-licensed homeopaths deserved the support of our closest medically credentialed colleagues at that time, just as the Nurse Practitioner did. We still do deserve this now.

Todd Rowe, MD had the right idea when he tried to build a school that would train homeopaths and confer a societally recognized credential for them. But, alas, Arizona may not have been the best location for the school.

We look forward to working with our friends at the NCH to support wider availability for and public education regarding homeopaths and homeopathy.

What did SB-577 (2002) do in California?

This law change made it possible for California consumers (over 35 million people!) to more easily and safely access health care services from non-licensed providers including homeopaths. CHFC actually reached into the California Medical Practice Act and changed it. This was over the objections of our friends at the California Medical Association, the California Nurses Association, The California Dieticians Association, and other groups who represent licensed practitioners. We passed our bill in one session with zero votes opposing passage. That doesn’t often happen.

The effect of passing of SB-577 (2002) was also an exceptional achievement. SB-577 (2002) did two things at once. First, it made it possible for non-licensed health care service providers to work without fear of prosecution for “practicing medicine without a license” (so long as they abided by the common-sense restrictions and provisions as prescribed in the law). Second, it mandated that consumers be informed in writing about the practice and the practitioner before they engaged services.

SB-577 (2002) created a warm environment for non-medical healing practices. Before SB-577 (2002) it was freezing cold for consumers due to lack of choice, and lack of information. “Medicine” held a virtual monopoly over all healing practices, including homeopathy. Before SB-577 (2002) it was freezing cold for non-licensed persons who wanted to provide healing services. Any delivery of any service was considered the practice of medicine, and therefore the exclusive purview of licensed practitioners.

It’s hard to tell how well our colleagues understand this law. More than once from uninformed non-licensed colleagues I have heard: “since we got a license in California….” SB577 is not a bill that confers a license of any sort to any person. The clearest explanation of the history, mechanism, and effect of SB577 can be found in a Memorandum authored by Mr. Abalona. This Memorandum is appended at the end of this article. It’s worth taking the 10 minutes or so to read. There is generally a poor understanding about this law and what means for non-licensed persons who work under it.

Since the law came into effect has anyone been prosecuted for violating SB-577 (2002)?

To my knowledge, since 2003, there have been several persons who have been prosecuted for “practicing medicine without a license” since they were not careful to follow the very simple-to-understand stipulations laid out in SB-577 (2002). Because they violated the terms laid out in SB-577 (2002), (now 2053.5 and 2053.6 of the California Business and Professions Code), they became liable for criminal prosecution.

Most of these prosecutions have been for persons who failed to properly disclose that he or she was not licensed to practice medicine in California while representing him or herself as “Dr.”, “Doctor” or “Physician” in their public representations. Indeed, most of these prosecutions were of foreign medical school graduates who acted as if they were at home where they had been licensed. One person was successfully prosecuted for failure to disclose lack of a California license to practice Medicine; and, she was ordering X-rays and laboratory blood tests… SB-577 (2002) specifically prohibits the ordering of laboratory blood tests, and X-rays by non-licensed persons.

There have been other investigations and prosecutions for other practitioners who were alleged to have actually harmed their patients…. I can’t tell you much about those cases as the subjects who told me they were being prosecuted did not tell me details of their situation because they were advised not to by their legal counsel.

So, it should be clear that SB-577 (2002) helped consumer’s access homeopathy and other health care modalities safely, but it has not conferred the privilege of licensure to any person. The California Medical Board and local district attorneys understand SB-577 (2002) and they prosecute when they feel a person has breached its provisions.

While SB-577 (2002) provides a way for non-licensed persons to offer healing services without being prosecuted for “practicing medicine without a license,” SB-577 (2002) does not prevent other licensing boards from prosecuting a non-licensed person for violating their practice acts. For example, if a non-licensed body-worker was to perform a “chiropractic” adjustment of the spine of a client, then the Chiropractic Board might choose to prosecute that non-licensed body worker. SB-577 (2002) is not relevant to the Chiropractic Act, nor other licensing acts.

SB-577 (2002) does not apply to any licensed person. The licensing board that issued a license to practice any healing practice regulates the person practicing with that societally recognized credential.

Last of all, SB-577 (2002) specifically does not shield practitioners from civil lawsuits related to their activities.

Does SB-577 (2002) tell us everything about what must and must not be done in practice?

No, SB-577 is silent regarding some aspects of practice. If you are in doubt, use common sense, and consult an attorney familiar with California health care law.

Did SB-577 (2002) help homeopathy and alternative medicine grow in California?

It’s hard to know what the effect has been in California. To be sure, the passage of SB-577 (2002) helped develop momentum that led to the passage of Health Freedom Bills in other states.

As for California, since SB-577 (2002) passed, we lost some schools, including the Pacific Academy of Homeopathy. The loss of schools is not a local phenomenon. AMCH also was not able to survive despite the heroic efforts of Dr. Todd Rowe, MD, and his team. The Vancouver Academy of Homeopathy withered without the leadership of Murray Feldman.

The legal opportunity for practice by itself is not the only determinant of growth or absence of any healing practice’s presence in any marketplace or regulatory scheme. However, the foundation for legal practice is one of the most difficult things to achieve. For more than a century, we have been in a legal environment where the influence of global medical industrial corporations, health insurance companies, and medical associations dominate the shaping of public health policy regulations and legislation.

Since legal opportunity to practice is now present, development of the professional practice to take homeopathy forward in California can come more easily. Leadership, education, and the vision to build a cogent, organized cadre of practitioners are all necessary to build a professional presence that is relevant to public health.

Did the quality or skill of practitioner rise as a result of the passage of SB-577 (2002)?

This is also hard to say. What is true, however is that consumers now know much more about the practitioner and practices that are offered to them. That’s good public health care policy.

We also know that the mechanism effected by SB-577 (2002) works well to keep people safe, and violators have been prosecuted.

What is the next single step?

The legal opportunity to practice will mean little if there are no skilled practitioners. If we can’t produce homeopaths who see economic opportunity in the professional practice, homeopathy will disappear. We need one very strong school to be developed. It should be located somewhere in California. After a school in California is stable, we can begin to act on a national agenda, state by state.

Who has the clarity of vision, will, and the business and political skill to lead this next step?

This question awaits an answer.