Shefali Luthra from Kaiser Health News via the Cannabist reports the results of a study conducted by policy experts. States with legalized medical marijuana, which is recommended for epilepsy, chronic pain, and even anxiety, saw a decrease in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat the aforementioned symptoms.
The study examined data from Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013. It’s the first study conducted with the purpose of determining whether medical marijuana legislation changes doctors’ clinical practice and whether or not it can lower public health costs.
Lawmakers from across the United States are debating the pros and cons of medical marijuana. Ohio and Pennsylvania are on board with using medical marijuana for therapeutic purposes, in addition to 25 other states and Washington, D.C.
Policymakers in Florida and Missouri will take the topic up in November. On the federal side of things, medical marijuana would be reclassified to a different schedule in order to make it more accessible. Currently, medical marijuana is a Schedule I drug, which means that doctors cannot prescribe it for use by patients since it is classified as the most dangerous drug that can cause physical dependence.
In states where marijuana is legalized for medicinal purposes, a doctor sends a note with a patient to a dispensary. Insurances don’t cover it, so patients must pay out of pocket. Prices of a regimen can run about $400 per month. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is mulling a reclassification. They are considering making medical marijuana a Schedule II drug. Schedule II drugs include morphine, oxycodone, Adderall, and so forth. Doctors could then prescribe it, but it’s unlikely that insurance will cover it then.
Medicare saw cost savings of $165 million in 2013. Researchers believe that if the policy was nationalized, the Medicare Part D spending would be curbed by $470 million. Percentage-wise, it would be about 0.5% of the total expenditures – but it’ll help.
David Bradford, a professor of public policy at the University of Georgia and one of the study’s authors, mentioned that while the savings are only a small part of the multi-billion dollars spent each year, it’s worth it. The study is looking into the impact medical marijuana can have on Medicaid. Bradford believes that they’ll see more savings there.
There are also ramifications with public health; drugs used to treat depression pain painkillers, and other intense medicines would no longer be the go-to for a doctor. In recent years, there’s been controversy about the use of opioids and the rate at which they are abused. With medical marijuana, daily doses of opioid use went down. It’s unclear whether there are health harms from medical marijuana or whether regular use is safe, but this will become clear as its use becomes more prominent.
Deepak D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry from Yale School of Medicine, notes that medical marijuana is unlike opioids. Opioid overdoses are, more often than not, fatal. It remains to be seen if a user could overdose on medical marijuana. There are side effects that still need to be evaluated.
D’Souza doesn’t believe that the cost savings are that great. He mentions that all it does is shift the cost from insurance companies to the patients. It does save the agencies, but it doesn’t save the patients. Bradford argues that if medical marijuana’s use was expanded, insurance companies would save because marijuana is cheaper than most drugs.
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