ShareThis Page
Health

UPMC clears doctors to certify patients for medical marijuana

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 12:18 p.m.
Marijuana plants
Getty Images
Marijuana plants
The UPMC sign sits atop the U.S. Steel Tower in downtown Pittsburgh on Jan. 11, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The UPMC sign sits atop the U.S. Steel Tower in downtown Pittsburgh on Jan. 11, 2018.

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.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me