Program to expand access to medical cannabis on Utah stalls, frustrating patients and lawmakers

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Department of Health has yet to implement a vital part of the state’s medical cannabis program, leaving patient advocates frustrated and lawmakers furious.

“It was never intended to take so long,” said Luz Escamilla, Senate Minority Whip of D-Salt Lake City, who has sponsored a bill to dramatically increase the number of medical providers who can recommend cannabis to eligible patients.

The bill was passed earlier this year following a FOX 13 investigation into the problem in 2019. Those skilled in medical cannabis have found too few doctors willing or able to recommend it. For some patients, they got out of state and smuggled cannabis in. Others have gone to the black market.

This too spawned a pop-up industry of some skilled healthcare providers charging someone $ 300- $ 600 per referral, until they reach for their patient cap and move on.

“A patient cannot ask their regular care physician to do this, so he pays $ 300 and now he becomes a medical cannabis patient. Not because he knew him, or because he knew his story, because that he would pay the money, ”said Desiree Hennessy, executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition.

Bill passed by legislature allowed medical providers to recommend cannabis for up to 15 patients without having to follow the “Qualified Medical Provider” training required by the state. A QMP can recommend cannabis for up to 275 patients (up to 600 with special permission from the Utah Department of Health).

“The aim was to allow patients to have access to their current doctor and to try to allow more doctors to participate in the program, by inducing them to become PGQ,” said the Senate Majority Leader, Evan Vickers, of R-Cedar City, who oversees cannabis legislation. for the GOP majority in the Utah legislature.

The limited health care provider program was supposed to be operational in September. But lawmakers were surprised to find that it had not been implemented at all. They found out about the same time that FOX 13 started learning about the program.

“We wanted to put an end to the predatory practices of charging these ridiculous amounts to patients who need care and access to this drug,” Senator Escamilla told FOX 13. “It is very frustrating and it does not help us. not help fight consumer protection problem. “

In a statement to FOX 13, the Utah Department of Health said there were software and personnel issues that caused the delay.

“Legislation passed during the 2021 legislative session allowed any physician, APRN, or PA with a controlled substance license in Utah to recommend medical cannabis to up to 15 of their patients. Implementing the legislation required significant changes to the software used to run Utah’s medical cannabis program, ”the agency said.

“As our office determined the software changes needed to implement the legislation, we encountered significant and unforeseen staffing issues and this was a major factor preventing us from implementing this legislation in a timely manner. It is important to the department that this legislation is implemented in software that protects patient information and that ensures full compliance with Utah laws. We are continuing our work to implement the required software changes and expect to be able to do so by mid-2022.

Senator Escamilla called the new program rollout schedule unacceptable.

“I’m not going to take this as a real deadline,” she said. “It has to happen sooner than that.”

Senator Vickers said the delay will impact other medical cannabis bills. Lawmakers cannot determine how to proceed if they do not know whether the program is successful or not.

“We are going to do everything we can to work with the Ministry of Health, including putting a little pressure on us to put PML on and try to have as much access to patients and doctors,” he said. he declared.

Senator Escamilla said that if UDOH needs more resources, they will try to find them.

“If it is a system problem, fix the system and make the changes,” she said. “If it’s a personnel issue, let’s fix it. It’s a top priority.”

Hennessy said patients with medical cannabis were frustrated, having been forced to pay high fees to get a legal card in Utah.

“The thing that we tried the most not to create was the ‘potty doctors’,” she said. “And we created ‘potty doctors. “”

Some patients, Hennessy said, choose to stay on the black market to get their drugs. Senator Escamilla said she shared the frustration and would push for it to be implemented by the first of the year.

“We’re going to get there,” she said. “And really, I apologize for not taking care of the execution side.”


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