New York lawmakers have approved a bill that would require public health insurance providers in the state to include medical marijuana as a covered prescription drug and authorize private insurers to do the same.
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The Assembly Health Committee passed the legislation from Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) in an 18-7 vote on Tuesday. It now heads to the Ways & Means Committee before potentially advancing to the floor.
The measure would amend state statute to define cannabis as a “prescription drug,” “covered drug” or “health care service” for health insurance purposes. Medical marijuana would need to be covered by public insurance entities “regardless of federal financial participation” in their services.
State Medicaid, Child Health Plus, workers compensation and EPIC programs would be required to treat cannabis from certified dispensaries the same as other conventional pharmaceuticals for the purposes of coverage.
Private health insurers, on the other hand, wouldn’t be forced to provide coverage for medical marijuana, but the bill clarifies that they can if they choose to.
The commissioner of the state Department of Health would also be authorized to “certify a dispensing site…as a medical assistance provider, solely for the purpose of dispensing medical marihuana,” the bill text says.
“For thousands of patients, medical marijuana is a safer and more effective medication than other drugs, especially opioids,” a justification memo attached to the bill says. “While it can be prohibitively expensive for many patients, especially in the absence of insurance coverage, it may often be less expensive than what their insurance coverage pays for other medications. Cost is the primary barrier to patient access in New York’s medical marijuana program.”
“Medicaid, other public health plans, and commercial health insurance plans do not cover medical marijuana, forcing patients to pay out of pocket,” it continues. “Some patients begin treatment only to stop due to inability to pay, while others turn to the black market. Efforts by registered organizations to offer discounts have helped but are inadequate for many low-income patients.”
“Access to medical marijuana should not be limited to those who can pay out of pocket. This bill adds medical marijuana to four publicly funded health programs—Medicaid, Child Health Plus, workers compensation, and EPIC—and the heavily publicly funded Essential Plan. For Medicaid and Child Health Plus, there would presumably not be federal matching funds until the federal government changes its policies, but New York’s Medicaid and Child Health Plus programs have always covered people and services for which we do not receive federal match.”
A Senate companion bill from Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D) has been referred to that chamber’s Health Committee but hasn’t yet been scheduled for action.
An earlier version of the legislation was approved in the Senate last year but it did not advance through the Assembly before the end of the session. A similar measure was also filed in the Assembly in a prior session, but it did not move out of committee.
Outside of New York, there was a push by the largest marijuana company in New Mexico last year to have insurers cover medical cannabis expenses, which it said was required by law.
The company and a coalition of patients followed up by filing a class-action lawsuit against seven health insurance companies in the state, demanding that they cover cannabis costs for qualifying patients.
With respect to workers compensation, there have been various court cases where employees have sought relief from their employers to cover medical cannabis costs for injuries they incurred on-site. Two Minnesota cases on the issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Justice Department asked justices to reject the case last year. Part of the department’s reasoning, however, was that it felt the matter would be better addressed by the executive or legislative branches.
Back in New York, the state is gradually moving to open more adult-use marijuana retailers as regulators simultaneously work to address the proliferation of unlicensed storefronts that have emerged during the glacial rollout.