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OPED: Pa. workers must tread carefully with medical marijuana

Joseph D'Amico
Frommer, D’Amico, Anderson

Although the use of marijuana for medical conditions was made legal in Pennsylvania in 2016, most people are still left with more questions than answers when it comes to when and how they can use cannabis to treat medical conditions.

Marijuana may be used for medical treatment for a variety of conditions, but the rules surrounding medical marijuana and workers’ compensation benefits are not clear.

Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act (Act 16) states the medical diagnoses for which marijuana can be used, some of which include: some spinal cord tissue injuries with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity; PTSD; neuropathies; and chronic pain in which traditional therapies are not effective or in which traditional treatment is contraindicated.

Where it gets complicated is that a lot of these categories are open to interpretation, and without medical knowledge or legal representation, patients could be denied medical treatment that is rightfully owed to them.

It’s important to shed light on this topic because a lot of Pennsylvania residents have experienced a situation in which they need medical marijuana for a work-related injury, but have little to no guidance as to their rights and what might be covered by workers’ compensation.

It’s unreasonable to think that they can make an informed choice or know their rights if they don’t understand the process and limitations to legally obtain medical marijuana and have it covered by workers’ compensation.

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FILE - This May 23, 2017 file photo shows GW Pharmaceuticals' Epidiolex, a medicine made from the marijuana plant but without THC. U.S. health regulators on Monday, June 25, 2018, approved the first prescription drug made from marijuana, a milestone that could spur more research into a drug that remains illegal under federal law, despite growing legalization for recreational and medical use. (AP Photo/Kathy Young, File)

Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act (Act 16) clearly indicates that insurance companies are not mandated to cover the use of marijuana for medical treatment. However what’s not readily shared is that there may be ways to get medical marijuana coverage from workers’ compensation claims. 

For example, an injured worker may apply to get their costs for medical marijuana reimbursed after a work injury. In addition, Pennsylvania’s workers’ comp laws clearly indicate that all needed and reasonable treatment for work-related injuries is covered by workers’ compensation benefits.

In theory, then, if a physician recommends medical marijuana for a work injury, it should be covered. Medical marijuana may prove to be less expensive for insurers to cover as well. It may also carry less risk of addiction while being more effective when compared to therapies such as opiates.

Some insurers, therefore, may prefer covering medical marijuana to covering more expensive classes of drugs.

The law surrounding medical marijuana and worker injuries in Pennsylvania is relatively new, and it is likely that this area of law will be clarified by the courts in the future.

Until then, it’s important that Pennsylvania’s injured workers do their research and seek guidance to ensure they are not denied their right to effective medical treatments that are best suited to alleviate their condition and put them on the road to recovery.

— Joseph D'Amico is an attorney with with Frommer, D’Amico, Anderson, LLC of Harrisburg specializing in workers' compensation.