Julie’s Story: Lobbying for Health

Julie Vojtech was always healthy… until one day she simply wasn’t. A former lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, Julie’s quest for conventional treatment continued with little relief. Julie went to doctor after doctor without answers until she discovered naturopathic medicine, beginning her journey on the road to health. Julie recently spoke with our INM team, to share her naturopathic patient story.

INM: Hi Julie, can you tell us a little bit about your background? I understand you’ve had a successful career in the health care industry, working for some big names and promoting health care legislation.

Julie: I directed public affairs and lobbied health care policies for the pharmaceutical industry in several states for many years. More specifically, I developed and executed the communications, advocacy, and government relations strategies to shape public policy on the “conventional side” of health care. 

I have a natural ability to organize and lead large coalitions of diverse stakeholders to influence lawmakers and policy. One of the coalitions I created and led passed bipartisan supported legislation in Minnesota that allowed indigent patients access to free/discounted medications. That program launched nationwide a year later. Another one of my coalitions passed health insurance coverage in Florida for oral chemotherapy medications. Despite stiff opposition, we passed bipartisan supported legislation and enacted a coverage program that lowered out-of-pocket costs for cancer patients.

An insider’s view raised questions

Julie: While I’m grateful for my accomplishments, much of my work centered around defending the industry’s pricing, sales, and marketing practices. An effective worker, I enjoyed my job but personally began to question the industry’s policies and my role within the pharmaceutical industry.

Maintaining patients on medications long-term is a profitable business, but is it always in the best interests of patients? Is it always cost-effective for patients, employers, and health insurers? Is it sustainable in the long run?

I also began to question our nation’s health care system and the focus on treating patients after they become ill. It seemed backwards to me. Once I left the industry and quit drinking the “punch,” my eyes opened wide and I could truly see the flaws with our health care system. I believe U.S. health care needs a transformation. 

Maintaining patients on medications long-term is a profitable business, but is it always in the best interests of patients? Is it always cost-effective for patients, employers, and health insurers? Is it sustainable in the long run?

INM: You have extensive professional experiences in health care, when did health care start to become personal?  

Julie: A couple of major personal turning points got my attention. First, I was very involved with caring for both of my parents at the end of their lives. Mom passed first, so my role with dad also extended to becoming his power of attorney and caregiver. Numerous lifestyle and environmental factors caused a miserable time at the end of their lives. They both took cocktails of prescription drugs with many horrible side effects. I witnessed their pain and suffering. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to.  

While my parents were alive, some lifestyle and environmental factors leading to poor health were obvious.  My dad smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day, had a poor diet, and drank heavily. Other factors were subtler and didn’t become obvious to me until more recently.  I wish I knew then what I know now. Ultimately, both parents ended up in skilled nursing homes where I also witnessed the pain and suffering of other patients, mostly from obesity, diabetes, smoking, and COPD. All of this had a profound effect on me. 

The CDC reports that 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease, the leading causes of death and disability and leading drivers  – 90% –  of the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs.
Many chronic diseases are caused by a short list of risk behaviors: Tobacco usePoor nutritionLack of physical activity, and Excessive alcohol use.

When health concerns hit home

Julie: Second, I had my own health care scare. 

Initially, I noticed quite a bit of pain when running. Suddenly I found myself in the ER three times within an 11-month period, with excruciating pain and inflammation. I felt like I was being stabbed with a knife all over my body. Just lying in bed hurt and I couldn’t get out of bed without assistance. Sometimes I had to be carried to the bathroom! I saw multiple doctors over a 3-year span, but none of them could explain what was causing my pain and inflammation.  I was a lifelong runner, a health nut, and blessed with excellent health. I rarely saw a doctor other than my OB-GYN for my annual physical.

I was a lifelong runner, a health nut, and blessed with excellent health… Suddenly I found myself in the ER three times within an 11-month period, with excruciating pain and inflammation.

Prednisone helped manage the pain and inflammation short-term, but once I came off that steroid, the pain and inflammation returned. I was tested for everything from A-Z including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Lyme disease. All my bloodwork repeatedly returned as negative or normal. Despite not having a diagnosis, doctors wanted to prescribe very powerful medications, including opioids, with numerous side effects. They recommended the same medications my mother had taken and that scared the heck out of me.  

Dismissed concerns and questions

Julie: My doctors dismissed me and my pain. My questions and concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears. My frustration with my doctors mounted due to their reluctance to identify and address the root cause of my illness. I knew there had to be a reason to go from being healthy and athletic to barely being able to walk to the mailbox. I couldn’t find a doctor willing to do anything beyond treating my symptoms with prescription drugs. After having worked for the pharmaceutical industry, the last thing I wanted to do was take prescription drugs! 

INM: You’ve described your health journey as reaching a turning point. Was there a specific “Eureka” moment where you came to embrace naturopathic care?

Julie: I thought for certain I was headed back to the ER soon with another painful flare. I was off the Prednisone and nearly all my pain and inflammation had returned. At this point, one of my doctors replied to my questions and concerns saying, “The root cause is irrelevant, we just need to treat your symptoms. You don’t have any inflammation anywhere in your body. The pain is all in your head. You just need to see a pain specialist and be treated with narcotics.” I was livid! 

I told my medical doctor that the root cause of my pain was relevant to me. I knew my body better than he did and I could feel inflammation all over my body. The pain was not in my head.

An introduction to naturopathic medicine

Julie: Shortly thereafter a friend recommended that I see a naturopathic doctor. 

Initially I saw a person who called herself a naturopathic doctor, though she did not have the education or training of a licensable naturopathic doctor.  She offered some helpful dietary advice, but she did not have the ability to diagnose or treat and her suggestions did not go nearly far enough. What little progress I made, quickly reversed. As a patient consumer, I found this extremely confusing because she called herself a naturopathic doctor. I learned the hard way that in states like Georgia where naturopathic doctors are not yet licensed, anyone can call themselves a naturopathic doctor because there isn’t any regulation to prevent doing so.

Regulation and licensure of naturopathic doctors provides consumer transparency and patient protection. It enables consumers to distinguish between qualified credentialed naturopathic doctors and lay people who claim to be naturopathic doctors.  Just as MDs, DOs, and RNs are regulated and professionally licensed, naturopathic doctors should be as well.

Learn more about the difference between a licensed naturopathic doctors and those who use the term “naturopath,” and read about the education, training and regulation of naturopathic doctors.

To find the root cause of my pain and inflammation, my naturopathic doctor ran a variety of tests. She discovered that I had small bowel inflammation, leaky gut, delayed food allergies, hormonal imbalances that included a low functioning thyroid and adrenal stress, an overgrowth of Candida, and spinal issues.  

I’ve made several lifestyle changes. I eliminated all my allergens which include alcohol, beef, corn, dairy, eggs, gluten/grains, soy, sugar (refined), and all processed foods. I take natural supplements and compound medications to treat the identified issues and imbalances. My care plan includes a physical medicine component with spinal adjustments and strict orders for daily stretching. 

 “…adults can also be waylaid by allergic reactions to foods they’ve enjoyed all their lives. Moreover, a food allergy that first rears its head in adulthood isn’t likely to go away.”

Harvard Health

INM: How has your life changed since you’ve taken more control of your health?

Julie: I’m excited to say that with I’m about 95% pain-free now without synthetic pharmaceutical medications. I walk, lift weights, ride horses, and hike. I believe I’ll run again soon. I have a goal of running another marathon! 

Julie enjoying life (image: Julie with a companion, on top of a mountain wearing hiking gear)

I learned that historically I wasn’t quite as healthy as I thought I was. While I exercised daily, I rarely ever stretched. While I ate many healthy foods, I still consumed too much sugar and processed food. Sugar is so addictive and my greatest weakness. During the first couple weeks of quitting sugar, I had tremendous cravings! The cravings subsided soon after. 

I am very conscious of everything I put into my body now. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. While consuming any of my allergens won’t immediately send me to the ER, if I fall back into my old habits, the pain and inflammation will return. My naturopathic doctor used alcoholism as an analogy: recovering alcoholics can’t just cut back on alcohol, they must eliminate it. Likewise, I can’t just cut back on my allergens. I must eliminate them. 

Overall, I feel healthier and I have more energy. My pain and inflammation are close to being completely gone. I rarely ever miss the foods and wine that I gave up. I feel fabulous!

People often comment that I have a restrictive diet, but I have a different point of view. I eat a variety of fruit, vegetables, fish, and chicken and I feel great. My family loves the healthy dishes I cook for them. Most restaurants are accommodating and willing to prepare entrees in a healthy manner. Now I’m trying to help family and friends understand that serving my allergens to me, especially sweets like cookies and cake, is just like giving alcohol to an alcoholic.

INM: What distinguishes naturopathic medicine from your previous health care experiences? Is this something you would recommend to family and friends?

Julie: I recommend naturopathic doctors to everybody. They’re excellent partners to conventional medical doctors. Naturopathic medicine complements conventional medicine and should be an integral part of our health care system. Naturopathic doctors treat the whole person. They identify and address the root cause of an illness. They focus on preventing and reversing disease. They treat naturally whenever possible with lifestyle modifications, while minimizing the use of prescription drugs. They really strive to help patients achieve optimal health, not just the absence of disease. My doctor and I have a dialogue and she listens to me. We are partners in my health care, and she has empowered me to take control of my health.

Naturopathic doctors treat the whole person. They identify and address the root cause of an illness. They focus on preventing and reversing disease… They really strive to help patients achieve optimal health, not just the absence of disease.

INM: What’s next?

Julie: My life-changing personal and professional epiphanies gave me a unique fresh new perspective and inspired me to return to school for a certification in holistic health. Now I realize that my life’s purpose is to help people transform their lifestyles so they’re healthier and happier, live with less pain, and minimize their dependence on prescription drugs. The best way for me to live my purpose is by combining my public policy skills, along with my passion for holistic health, and advocate public policies that will make holistic health care more mainstream and patient accessible.

I am advocating public policies that promote optimal health and disease prevention/reversal through healthy lifestyles and environment.

I’ve done a complete 180. Now I’m advocating for naturopathic medicine. My ultimate vision is to lead a team that creates a paradigm shift, transforming our current health care system to a holistic health care system that promotes optimal health and disease prevention, starting with examining the whole person, looking for the root cause of illness, and treating naturally whenever possible. 

I am living testament that naturopathic medicine is efficacious and cost-effective for patients, health insurers, and employers. I also believe it is more sustainable to our health care system. 

I shudder to think of where I might be if I was taking all those powerful synthetic pharmaceutical medications and opioids initially prescribed to me. I am so grateful that I discovered and chose naturopathic medicine. I feel fabulous and I just want to share this! I want everybody to know about naturopathic medicine and to have this choice if they want it.

INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.