Under the current system, people can purchase homeopathic products and the government will partially reimburse the cost of the treatment. This is about to change.

Woman looking at homeopathic ‘remedies’. Image credits: Casey West.

The healthcare system in France (as in most of Europe) is very different from that in the US. It’s a universal health care system largely financed by government national health insurance. It’s free and consistently ranks among the best ones in the world, despite the average spending being way below that of the US.

Of course, the system is not perfect. For instance, one thing which medical scientists have long objected to is the reimbursement of homeopathic costs.

France has a long history with homeopathy, this being the most popular alternative treatment. Its prevalence rose steadily since the 1980s, despite the fact that research has consistently shown that there is no reliable evidence to support homeopathic products (read our in-depth explanation of why homeopathy sometimes seems to work here). France also hosts the global leader of homeopathic products, Boiron — a company with yearly revenues in excess of $650 million.

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Boiron has strongly protested against this measure but as government representatives point out, the country spends a hefty sum reimbursing homeopathic treatments that just don’t work. According to official figures, French social security in 2018 paid back patients some 126.8 million euros ($142.2 million) for homeopathic treatment — out of a total of 20 billion euros ($22.4 billion) refunded for medicines in total.

That will now stop.

Unlike conventional treatments, which can be fully reimbursed by the government, the reimbursement of homeopathic products is currently limited at 30% of the price. French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the reimbursement will be gradually phased out, going down to 15% in 2020 and 0% in 2021.

Buzyn, a leading French hematologist and university professor, had no previous experience in politics before joining the government in 2017. She has consistently emphasized the importance of implementing science-based policies, even if the decisions are unpopular — which is the case here.

The decision was met with substantial backlash from a part of the French population, which considered it a breach of their individual freedom. However, Buzyn emphasizes that doctors will still be free to prescribe homeopathic treatments, and people are still free to buy them if they so choose. Still, in order for the government to offer reimbursements, there needs to be some evidence supporting homeopathy — which, at the moment, isn’t the case. In fact, the principles behind homeopathy have long been disproven.

It’s a small but significant step for a country where homeopathy is very prevalent. The government is sending a strong message: homeopathy has time and time again been disproven and shown to be no better than a placebo — so why fund it?