Making case for cannabis to be covered by insurance for care of chronic pain

A person living with acute or chronic pain today can be prescribed a potentially addictive opioid — and the cost of the medication will be covered by commercial and government insurance policies. Despite better education and awareness, opioid prescribing remains high in the U.S., compared with other countries.

But, if a person concerned about using opioids instead turns to legal, medicinal cannabis, they will pay for their medicine out of their own pocket — even if they have a qualifying medical condition and are under the care of a health care provider in a state where medicinal marijuana is legal.

At the Cannabis Education and Research Institute, this strikes us as unfair and, ultimately, costly to our society.

Our state lawmakers recognize cannabis as medication for 17 conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, cancer pain, epilepsy and terminal illness. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found cannabis valuable in treating chemotherapy-related nausea, multiple sclerosis-related spasticity and chronic pain. The Academy recognized — and we do we well — that medicinal cannabis is not compatible with pregnancy or driving, and that chronic use in adolescents can impair academic achievement.

At CERI, we also see every day how medicinal cannabis can be life-changing for chronically ill patients, including those who want to avoid, reduce or end the use of potentially addictive opioids. A University of Michigan study, for instance, found patients using medicinal marijuana to control chronic pain reported a 64% reduction in their use of opioids. The patients in the study also reported fewer side effects and improved quality of life.

A study co-authored by William Paterson University economics professor Rahi Abouk found older employees using marijuana for pain filed fewer workers’ compensation claims — and that overall there were fewer claims in states with medicinal marijuana programs. Abouk credited “better pain management.”

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer must reimburse an injured worker for the cost of the medicinal marijuana he was using for pain relief. The worker had become addicted to the opioids he used to relieve his pain. The court said the worker had credible evidence to establish that the medicinal marijuana was reasonable and necessary treatment.

At CERI, a nonprofit organization, we work to advance unbiased medical research and credible information about medicinal cannabis. Our board is comprised of accomplished scientists, physicians and policymakers who support research and patient access to medicinal marijuana.

We believe that quality research is critical, especially now that many states are moving to legalize cannabis recreationally — a change that often devastates the medical cannabis market.  Patients may turn to recreational markets for cannabis and not work with their physicians. Growers of the strains that medical patients need may decide to grow more lucrative strains for the recreational market. We have seen this happen in other states, where recreational marijuana crushes the medicinal market.

At CERI, we think the best way to preserve access to medical cannabis is through reputable research and third-party payer coverage. CERI is partnering with a health management company, Integrity Health, in a series of studies using a Patient Centered Outcome Research model. Simply put, we will collaborate with at least one medical marijuana dispensary, or Alternative Treatment Center, to obtain feedback from medicinal marijuana patients on their experience treating chronic pain, cancer pain and cancer-related nausea. Integrity Health will reimburse patients for the cost of the cannabis.

We are deeply concerned about the high cost of medicinal marijuana. That’s why we also support legislation in New Jersey that would cover the cost of medicinal marijuana for patients enrolled with four different financial assistance programs meant to help children, seniors, crime victims and those with disabilities. The bills are sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Delran).

These bills could reduce opioid use in our state and improve lives. We want people who are suffering with serious conditions to be able to purchase legal, safe medicinal marijuana under the direction of their physicians — and we don’t want the cost of medicinal marijuana to drive people to the black market. At the heart of our argument is compassion for people who are suffering. They deserve coverage of a medicine that helps them.

David Knowlton is chairman and CEO of the Cannabis Education and Research Institute, based in Pennington.