UPMC clears doctors to certify patients for medical marijuana

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Health giant UPMC, which initially shied away from Pennsylvania’s fledgling medical marijuana program, has created new guidelines for its doctors interested in certifying patients for treatment.

The development could provide a huge boost to the program’s physician participation, as the state only had 433 approved doctors available to certify patients last week.

“We think it will help providers, who were thinking about certifying patients, make their decision,” Dr. Ajay Wasan, vice chair of pain medicine at UPMC, told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday. “The shift is that it has become more and more clear that medical marijuana is really an important issue to patients. They have great concerns over it, and our health care system wants to be a partner with patients to do what is best for them.”

Wasan co-chaired a UPMC committee that last week final­ized medical marijuana guidelines for treating pain. The guidelines are being distributed to thousands of doctors this week.

Allegheny Health Network is developing a policy for its doctors, said spokeswoman Candace Herrington. She declined to reveal any details.

Excela Health has not formalized a policy.

“We applaud UPMC for this decision and encourage all medical professionals to provide access to medical marijuana, which Governor Wolf has supported throughout implementation of the state’s medical marijuana program,” said April Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “Physician participation is vital to the success of this program.”

One key point of UPMC’s guidelines is that doctors should not use medical marijuana as a first line of treatment for various ailments, Wasan said. Additionally, any patient certified by a UPMC doctor must schedule a follow-up visit in one month.

Wasan said UPMC doctors were never prohibited from participating in the medical marijuana program, but most did not because the health system had no formal guidelines.

In Pennsylvania, doctors have to register with the state Department of Health, which requires taking a four-hour training course, before they can certify patients for medical marijuana.

Wasan said he is halfway through the training course.

Marijuana remains classified federally as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same category as heroin, meaning dispensaries cannot be reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid. Because of the federal classification, the Pennsylvania market operates on a cash basis, without insurance.

However, Wasan said UPMC patients will be covered for pain evaluations within the health system.

“Because the process of certifying for medical marijuana is part of a process of evaluating and treating chronic pain, there will not be a separate charge,” he said. “The visit will be embedded within a larger process of chronic pain evaluation and treatment.”

Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said UPMC’s decision to implement medical marijuana guidelines is a monumental development.

“If physicians are unwilling to register, then patients cannot have access to the program,” he said. “Therefore, I am very heartened to hear that our largest medical care provider here in Southwestern Pennsylvania is permitting its physicians to register.”

Under state law, patients can apply for a state-issued medical marijuana card if a doctor certifies he or she has one of 17 medical conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders.

Qualified patients with a doctor’s recommendation will receive a Pennsylvania medical marijuana identification card, permitting the purchase of medical marijuana from an authorized state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary.

Dispensaries are also allowed to sell equipment, such as vaping devices for liquid forms, to administer medical marijuana.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a medical marijuana bill into law in April 2016. Medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is available in pills, oils, tinctures or ointments. The Health Department is regulating the program, which forbids smoking marijuana in dry leaf form.

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