Dr. Eric Ruby, testifying before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Financial Services on Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

Medical cannabis patients and health care providers urged the Massachusetts legislature on Nov. 9 to pass a bill that would allow insurance companies to cover cannabis-related costs. Though even if it is passed, the bill could run afoul of the federal cannabis prohibition.

“Insurance formularies should reflect the need for medical marijuana among Massachusetts patients. And under this legislation, they’d be able to,” said State Senator Julian Cyr, in a statement released prior to the hearing. Cyr is the lead sponsor of S.649 – the state senate’s version of the bill. H.1143 is the House version of the bill.

Both bills were among a series of health-insurance related measures that were discussed before the legislature’s joint committee on Financial Services. Following the hearing, the committee will determine whether or not to move the bills back to their respective legislative floors for votes to see if they land on the governor’s desk.

Regardless of how likely that scenario is, the act would still run into a conflicting federal law. Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against a man who attempted to obtain insurance coverage of medical cannabis through his workers’ compensation policy.

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans offered their support of the insurance coverage ban, deferring to federal regulation in an unsigned released statement.

“The FDA plays an important role in supporting scientific research on various drugs to assess their medical efficacy, the appropriate dosage, determine the best route of administration, and test for possible drug interactions,” said the statement. “Because medical marijuana is not yet FDA approved, Massachusetts health plans do not offer coverage.”

In the absence of insurance coverage, some organizations in the state have created their own funds to assist low-income patients, such as the Massachusetts Patients Advocacy Alliance.

“Soon after the pandemic, our organization was overwhelmed with requests for financial aid either for a clinical visit or for information about the hardship discount programs at Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers,” said MPAA President Nichole Snow. “Our organization now offers financial aid to hundreds of low income patients.”

The state ban contributes to patients being left in a financial lurch, due to the cost of annual health care consultations to renew their patient registration as well as cannabis itself. Several of those patients spoke at the hearing.

Jennifer Van, a 42-year-old with numerous chronic health conditions, said that she was prescribed 15 daily medications, noting that two are opiates and three are controlled substances.

“I could replace eight of my medications with medical cannabis and get rid of them completely if I could afford it,” said Van. “I have had a medical cannabis card for the past two years, however I am low income and on state health insurance, so it’s very hard for me to afford the cannabis I need to medicate myself.”

Eric Ruby, a Taunton, Massachusetts pediatrician said that he has been registered with the state to certify cannabis patients since 2014.

“I have consulted over 400 compromised, disabled, severely handicapped pediatric patients over the last seven years,” he said. My heart goes out to their families, and their hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly struggles. These struggles are physical, emotional and financial.”

“We really need insurance-based coverage,” said Dr. Ryan Zacklin. “Cannabis is medicine, it’s indisputable.”

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...