Medical board doesn't want new patients to access drug through telemedicine.
One of the drivers of the explosive growth in Louisiana’s medical marijuana industry has been online platforms where patients can get a prescription for the drug remotely through a telemedicine visit with a doctor.
But since COVID emergency rules ended this spring, the state board that governs doctors has maintained that telemedicine isn’t allowed for new medical marijuana patients. That position has put it at odds with key lawmakers who advocate for the program and unsettled investors in the industry.
The tensions hit a boil this week when the State Board of Medical Examiners voted down a proposal to allow doctors to use telemedicine for recommending marijuana to some patients. If successful, the measure would have changed the board’s policy to allow telemedicine for some new patients seeking marijuana prescriptions.
It’s unclear what practical effect the board’s position will have. Some legislators believe the law they passed supersedes the board’s authority, meaning telemedicine would still be allowed for new medical marijuana patients. The board says it only investigates and takes action against doctors when it receives a complaint. Telemedicine services are still up and running--and have been for months, despite the board’s position.
But advocates worry the conflict will present another barrier to patients, who already face high prices, sporadic supply and a limited number of pharmacies. Lawmakers have resisted expanding the number of growers and pharmacies in the program, though some new satellite pharmacy locations are expected to open up in the coming months.
Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna who has advocated for medical marijuana, slammed the board’s decision, and said he believes a section of a bill passed this year that aims to protect telemedicine for marijuana patients overrides the board’s position.
“I think it’s going to have a very detrimental effect on the program,” Marino said. “This program is already plagued with not having accessible and affordable medicine. This makes the accessible part way more challenging for people with debilitating conditions.
“I would expect as we stand right now if any doctors are sanctioned in any way for recommending medical marijuana as the Legislature intended it to be, I think they would have a lawsuit against the board for not following this law.”
State Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who was instrumental in passing the medical marijuana program into law several years ago, said the board shouldn’t be in the business of “micromanaging” doctors.
“I just have confidence in a physician that they know when to see a patient live and in person and when they can prescribe it through telemedicine,” he said.
But the executive director of the board, Dr. Vincent Culotta, noted in an interview that federal law says prescriptions for “controlled and dangerous substances” require in-person visits. The board’s rules allow telemedicine for subsequent visits, but require an in-person visit for an initial medical marijuana recommendation.
Board members contacted for comment pointed to a statement by the board’s president, Dr. Lester Johnson, who said the board thinks its current policies on telemedicine are in compliance with the law. Johnson said the board has told staff to identify law changes needed to accomplish what Marino wants.
“This would need to include changes to both the therapeutic marijuana and telemedicine laws, which are currently not in concordance,” Johnson said. But he added that the medical board has been hesitant to make those changes because there is a “likely possibility” the Legislature will amend the law further in the 2023 session.
Gary Hess, CEO of the marijuana telemedicine company Teleleaf, said his company is still providing telemedicine recommendations for medical marijuana. But he said he’s exploring what the board’s position means for his business.
Hess, a veteran who advocates for medical marijuana for other veterans, said his company saw significantgrowth in patients earlier this year when flower, the popular smokable form of the drug, hit the shelves. But he said patients still face a lack of options.
“If anything needs to happen in Louisiana we need to work on providing easier access and more access to patients in need,” he said.