Massachusetts: Doctors Advised Not To Authorize Patients For Medical Marijuana
By Steve Elliott
Massachusetts has a new medical marijuana law, approved by a vast majority of voters last November. But doctors at community health centers have been advised not to authorize any more of their more than 638,000 patients for medical marijuana, because the centers are afraid they'll lose their federal funding.
The Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers has advised its 36 federally funded facilities to stop issuing patient marijuana authorizations under state law because cannabis use remains illegal for any purpose under federal law, reports Kay Lazar at The Boston Globe.
Health center physicians who authorize patients for medical marijuana could be committing a "potential violation of federal law and could result in legal and financial exposure for community health centers," according to a spineless statement from the League.
Voters approved a ballot initiative last November, making Massachusetts one of 20 medical marijuana states (plus the District of Columbia). Federally funded community health centers in other states have also advised doctors against authorizing patients to use marijuana.
Also at state is possible loss of malpractice insurance, covered by a federal program known as the Federal Tort Claims Act. Additionally, should a community health center doctor be convicted under federal law for authorizing a patient for marijuana, the physician could be shut out of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which cover many who use the centers.
The National Association of Community Health Centers said it was unaware of any center or center physician, anywhere, facing federal sanctions for authorizing medical marijuana, but the threat of prosecution or, more likely, funding loss, is still a factor.
“Community health centers have been providing access to care for decades, but there is no assurance that they would not come under federal investigation or that their physicians would not face trouble for certifying medical conditions under state medical marijuana programs, given it is an unsettled area of the law,” said attorney Kathryn Watson of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, a D.C.-based law firm that advises the national group.
The community health centers' stance very likely undermines the goal of Massachusetts state regulators, who wanted lower-income people to be able to afford medical marijuana. Many of those with lower incomes, of course, get their healthcare at community health centers.
In July, MMJ patient Gary (who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his publicly subsidized apartment) received notice from the health center that his marijuana authorization was being rescinded. The center was worried about losing federal funding, which accounts for about 10 percent of the facility's money.
Paola Ferrer, who directs grants and development at the Allston health center, said the organization can't risk its federal funding by writing marijuana authorizations for a small number of patients.
"We are really tied to the federal government and the funding stream, and until the legal issues are adequately resolved, we are not at liberty to do this, Ferrer claimed.
Patients at Veterans Affairs facilities also face challenges getting medical marijuana authorizations. Physicians at VA hospitals are prohibited from "completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran's participation in a state marijuana program," according to a 2011 memo from the Department of Veterans Affairs.