Marijuana is gaining more ground as a legitimate way to treat certain ailments and diseases including being used for pain management, nausea, multiple sclerosis and certain types of seizures. However, there is still a major stigma attached to the use of marijuana, and some lawmakers do not want to subsidize its use to treat citizens under the workers' compensation program. Can medical marijuana be used to treat the thousands of individuals with workplace injuries?
Workers' compensation insurance and medical marijuana have an uneasy relationship. Insurance companies may try to reduce or deny claims where the worker was under the influence of marijuana at the time, regardless of whether it was for medical use or not. However, medical marijuana has been approved to treat a number of diseases, some of which may be caused by workplace injuries. Now, some states are considering legislation to refuse reimbursement for patients on workers' comp for the costs of medical marijuana treatment.
New Mexico lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow insurance providers to deny reimbursement of workers compensation claims for medical marijuana. According to State Senator Clemente Sanchez, who introduced the bill, “We cannot expect employers and insurance carriers to have to pay for something that is illegal.”
However, more than once, their courts have come down in favor of the patients instead of the insurance companies. The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that a patient who was injured on the job must be reimbursed by their employer for the costs of valid medical marijuana treatment. Miguel Maez, a worker who suffered a back injury on the job, used medical marijuana to treat his injury, when oxycodone, hydrocodone, and Percocet failed to give him relief. The court ruled the state's compassionate use law required the insurance company to reimburse the worker for his medical marijuana use.
In another case, Sandra Lewis, of Albuquerque, injured her back on the job in 1988. Despite several surgeries, she continued to suffer from chronic pain. In 2010, she became a medical marijuana patient as a way to treat her chronic back pain. The court's decision affirmed that her employer had to reimburse Lewis for her medical marijuana treatment.
So far, New Mexico appears to be the only state that has a high court ruling on the issue. While some lawmakers continue to fight against the use of marijuana to treat medical conditions, experts say marijuana could be a safer alternative to opioid use. Dr. Damon Raskin, who specializes in addiction and substance abuse said the use of medical marijuana may be a more reasonable alternative, in consideration of “the risk of death and other severe addiction issues with opiates.”
Medical marijuana sales in Illinois began in November. In order to be approved as a medical marijuana patient, individuals need a doctor's written certification and to submit a $100 annual fee. So far more than 4,000 patients have been approved for medical marijuana treatment. An expert advisory panel recommended adding post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis, and other pain syndromes to the list. However, the Illinois Department of Public Health declined to further expand the list of ailments that can be treated with medical marijuana.
The Illinois Workers' Compensation Act requires an employer to provide and pay for health care “which is reasonably required to cure or relieve from the effects of the accidental injury.” However, it may still be too early to know whether Illinois employers and workers' compensation insurance companies will be required to reimburse medical marijuana treatment.
As the number of states that have legalized medical marijuana continues to grow, some states are still hesitant to expand access too broadly, watching states like Colorado and Washington, while evaluating their own pilot programs. Individuals with workplace injuries will have to speak to their doctors, and perhaps their lawyers, to determine whether medical marijuana treatment can be used to help get them back on the job.