It took 99 years, but Minnesota has finally given official recognition to the practice of naturopathic medicine, which relies on the body's powers to heal itself.

Under a new state law, naturopaths -- who use everything from herbal remedies to biofeedback -- will be allowed to register with the state and call themselves doctors without fear of running afoul of the medical establishment.

You might think that would be a cause for celebration throughout Minnesota's alternative-health community.

But you'd be wrong.

Instead, the new law has triggered a bitter rift among the vast array of people who practice alternative medicine, from homeopaths to folk healers to massage therapists.

To those covered by the new law, it's simply a way to get more respect and professional freedom for a particular brand of holistic medicine. But others see it as an assault in a turf war that could benefit a few highly trained practitioners at the expense of others.

"What they're trying to do is become the gatekeeper for natural health, so nobody else can practice," said Greg Schmidt, who runs the Minnesota Natural Health Legal Reform Project, which led a pitched battle to sink the law.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the fissure remains.

"I didn't realize how much of an issue it was going to be," said Rep. Neva Walker, DFL-Minneapolis, who championed the bill for years before it finally passed and was signed into law in May. "[I] didn't realize somebody who had supported all forms of alternative healing for years was going to be an enemy."

The quest for recognition

Naturopathic doctors call their work a mix of modern and traditional medicine.

In some states, they are licensed professionals, much like medical doctors. The main difference, they say, is that they rely on herbs, vitamins and other natural, low-tech remedies to treat ailments that, they believe, are often caused by stress and lifestyle.

"It's blending the best of what we know in science with the best of what we know in natural medicine," said Leslie Vilensky, of New Prague, president of the Minnesota Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

In Minnesota, supporters have tried, on and off, to pass a naturopathic law since 1909. But they have been lumped in with other folk healers, allowed to work with patients as long as they didn't cross into territory reserved for doctors or other licensed professionals.

Sometimes, that's been tricky.

In 1996, Helen Healy, a St. Paul naturopath, was accused by the state Board of Medical Practice of practicing medicine without a license. Her case instantly became a cause célèbre for alternative medicine supporters. Natural healers of all stripes, from herbalists to homeopaths, protested in the streets over her treatment. Eventually the medical board compromised, allowing Healy to see patients within certain limits.

At that point, Healy, who runs the Wellspring Naturopathic Clinic, vowed to try to change state law to allow naturopathic doctors to practice freely. She never imagined that the biggest resistance would come from former allies.

"We're not trying to take away anybody's rights to use these gifts from nature," she said last week. "We just need to have a place ... for naturopathic physicians."

A divide among healers

For years, Healy and her colleagues pushed futilely for a law to license naturopathic doctors. This year, they changed strategy and proposed a less-formal registration.

It allows those who qualify to use the title "naturopathic doctor" and expand their "scope of practice" to include such things as ordering blood tests and MRIs, and admitting patients to hospitals.

It only applies, however, to graduates of four-year naturopathic medical schools -- about 26 people now practicing in Minnesota, according to the naturopathic group.

At first, they ran into flak from both sides. The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA), representing conventional doctors, objected to allowing naturopaths to prescribe drugs and perform minor surgery. When those items were dropped, the MMA withdrew its opposition.

But the alternative-medicine groups dug in their heels. Boyd Landry, who heads the Coalition for Natural Health in Washington, D.C., argued that it could lead to restrictions on other people practicing alternative medicine. "This is about market share. This is about turf," he said.

Schmidt, of the Minnesota group, agreed. "Regulatory schemes create boxes, and boxes fence people in as much as they fence people out," he said. Schmidt worried what would happen to naturopaths who are self-taught or took correspondence courses and don't qualify under this law.

"Why should they be denied a title?" he asked.

Supporters, though, say the new law doesn't interfere with anyone's right to practice alternative medicine. "Take a look at the bill; it's not there. The bill doesn't prohibit anybody," Healy said. "We are not trying to control the universe of natural health care."

The debate isn't over. The new law, which takes effect in July 2009, calls for a work group of both sides to hammer out the details. Both sides said that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, after nearly a century of trying, naturopaths are relishing their victory.

"It's not necessarily as complete or thorough as other laws, where naturopaths practice in other states," said Vilensky, president of the Minnesota group. "But we're very happy that we're able to do what we can do under this law."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384