Earlier this year, an article in The New York Times concluded that the more than $27 billion U.S. residents spend annually on alternative and complementary medicine provides the most telling evidence of Americans’ desire for non-traditional health care.

How does this desire for non-traditional care impact employers, and why should employers care? Americans’ growing love affair with non-traditional medicine presents a golden opportunity for brokers and employers to think outside the box when it comes to health benefits.

Here are 7 reasons why employers and their benefits advisors should be thinking alternatively when it comes to health benefits.

1. Growing Employee Demand

An estimated 48% of U.S. adults used at least one alternative or complementary treatment in 2004, compared with 42% in 1994. A key reason behind the growing demand for non-traditional care is the desire for novel approaches.

Baby boomers have been trendsetters for the past 5 decades. Even as they reach their sunset years, they continue to be pioneers. They value the personalized and unhurried approach of many nontraditional providers, the providers’ resistance to recommending prescription drugs, and the potential for obtaining a holistic view of health issues and recommendations for “whole body” health improvement.

2. State Coverage Mandates

Over the past decade, demand for alternative care has been so strong that some states are increasingly mandating that insurers cover some form of alternative services.

Today, for example, more than 40 states require that chiropractic care be covered, while 8 states require that some form of alternative medicine (such as acupuncture, naturopathy or massage therapy) be covered.

As these mandates expand further, and with specialty insurers grabbing a greater share of the customer market, traditional insurers are expanding their complementary coverage offerings, facilitating access for more employer groups.

3. Research Results

Today’s growing allegiance to alternative care is not being adopted just on blind faith. Increasingly, research trials and rigorous studies are proving there is validity in claims about the benefits of complementary care.

Most recently, for example, a landmark study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated that acupuncture not only provides pain relief, but also improves function for people suffering with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Another study, released by researchers at Duke University Medical Center, found that acupuncture was more effective than the medicine Ondansetron for reducing nausea and vomiting after major breast surgery.

Still other studies have shown marked improvement in patients treating back pain with Yoga and reducing stress with massage therapy.

As organizations such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a federal agency formed in 1998, continue to fund more clinical trials, CAM usage is expected to soar.

4. Rising Medical Utilization Costs

Employees typically turn to alternative health care when traditional medical care has not worked or the traditional treatment is not considered acceptable because of cost or potential side effects.

Studies show that employee migration to “high touch,” low-cost therapies such as chiropractic or massage therapy can significantly reduce an employer’s overall medical costs by eliminating or reducing high-tech, surgical and pharmacological treatments.

For example, a study published in the October 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that employees with chiropractic health plan coverage, as compared to those without, incurred a 41% reduction in hospitalizations for back pain, a 32% reduction in back surgeries, a 37% reduction in the use of costly CT and MRI scans for back problems, and a 23% reduction in the use of X-rays. Overall, the cost per episode of treating back pain was 28% less for employees with chiropractic health plan coverage than for those without chiropractic coverage.

5. High Rates of Employee Stress and Absenteeism

In our 24/7 work culture, stress is taking its toll. In fact, workplace stress costs employers more than $300 billion a year in medical treatment and absenteeism.

Fortunately, complementary health treatments such as massage therapy and Yoga have been shown to trigger physical, emotional and mental changes that can significantly decrease stress, lower absenteeism and enhance productivity.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami has discovered that a basic 15-minute chair massage provided twice weekly results in decreased job stress and a significant increase in productivity.

In addition, anecdotal evidence from large employers about the positive effects of massage has facilitated employer acceptance of this service as a therapy. Today 18% of large employers offer massage therapy to reduce stress and absenteeism, according to the Society of Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va.

6. Attracting the Best Job Candidates

In an era of health benefit take-aways, complex health savings account plans, and premium cost-shifting to employees, CAM programs can give employers a simple, innovative way to sweeten their benefits while differentiating themselves from competitors.

7. Tight Budgets

Employers can add CAM benefits to any health plan, just as they would add on dental or vision care, for the low cost of about 1% to 2% of their total health care premium.

Flexible arrangements allow employers to purchase products either on a contributory or non-contributory basis, or even as an employee pay-all supplement.

While the employee pay-all approach may not be as meaningful to employees, it still provides the opportunity to reduce medical utilization by facilitating employee access to lower-cost services.

Employees with health savings accounts can pay for these lower-cost services with pre-tax cash, thus stretching their health care dollars while enhancing feelings of empowerment.

Employers can purchase complementary health plans from traditional insurers in some states, but where such coverage is not available or is limited in its scope, another option is to purchase the coverage directly from a specialty benefits company. Such companies offer the broadest range of coverages and often provide additional health services, such as wellness plans, weight management and smoking cessation.