NORML Op-Ed: States Should Require Insurers to Pay for Medical Cannabis

Marijuana Flower

Should health insurance programs reimburse patients for their use of medical cannabis products? In a growing number of states, the courts are saying “yes.”

In the most recent example, a Pennsylvania Appellate Court ruled that workers’ compensation plans must cover cannabis-related expenditures when an employee uses it to recover from a workplace-related injury. The court ruled that employees in Pennsylvania possess “a statutory right” to be reimbursed for medical marijuana expenses that are reasonable and necessary to treat a work injury.  

“The MMA (Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act) specifically mandates that no medical marijuana patients be denied any rights for (the) lawful use of medical marijuana,” the Court said.

The Pennsylvania Court is not the first to issue an affirmative verdict in this matter. Courts in several states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York, have provided similar opinions – determining that the denial of compensation claims would be antithetical to the legislatures’ express findings that cannabis is a state-legal therapy.

By contrast, courts in some other states, including Minnesota, have issued contradictory opinions – finding that it would be inappropriate for insurers to reimburse claimants for their use of a federally illegal substance. Federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, placing it in the same legal category as heroin.

In most states, however, the law is largely silent on the issue. But don’t expect that to be the case for much longer. As scientific consensus and public attitudes surrounding the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis continue to evolve, the way insurers approach patients’ use of marijuana is likely to change too.

For example, lawmakers in Massachusetts recently introduced legislation explicitly providing that injured employees be reimbursed for their medical marijuana-related costs. In New York, lawmakers just advanced legislation, A. 4713, requiring public insurance plans to treat medical cannabis like any other medication. 

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia currently regulate the production and dispensing of cannabis for medical purposes. No state government has ever repealed or even rolled back these laws. That’s because these policies are widely accepted among both the public and among health professionals.

In fact, according to nationwide survey data recently compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over two-thirds of practicing physicians acknowledge the efficacy of medical cannabis and over one-quarter say that they have recommended it to their patients. 

Tens of millions of Americans are now using cannabis therapeutically. The number has doubled over the past decade, as peer-reviewed data that support the use of medical cannabis for the treatment of pain, multiple sclerosis, and other ailments has continued to grow. In many instances, patients are replacing their use of opioids, benzodiazepines and other prescription medications with cannabis because they find it more effective and with fewer adverse side effects. 

In short, most patients, most physicians, and most state laws view cannabis as a legitimate therapeutic option. Therefore, the millions of Americans who rely upon medical cannabis products ought to be afforded the same entitlements as those who use other conventional medications and therapies. Those privileges should include insurance-provided reimbursement for medical cannabis treatment.  

State legislators ought to see to it that this is a right provided for and protected in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legally available under the law. 

This op-ed was originally published by the Pain News Network.

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