Medicare’s relationship with medical marijuana

Medicare and medical marijuana have a complex relationship. The United States government’s federal health care entitlement program doesn’t cover the medical use of cannabis just yet. But calls for it to do so have grown increasingly loud in recent years.

Consider that 23 states plus the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana treatments. These treatments are mostly for pain management applications in lieu of pricier prescription painkillers. Consider also that a new study produced by a University of Georgia research team indicates a significant correlation between states with medical marijuana laws and Medicare prescription drug cost savings.

Marijuana’s effect on Medicare spending

W. David and Ashley Bradford found that in 17 states that had medical marijuana laws by 2013, painkiller prescriptions dropped by a large margin. The availability of medical cannabis, whether cultivated at home or obtained at a dispensary, also had a marked effect on Medicare spending, according to the Bradford’s study. The federal government saved approximately $165.2 million in 2013 due to lower demand for prescription painkiller drugs. The Bradfords also found that doctors in medical marijuana states prescribed fewer anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, seizure, and antidepressant medications in addition to the reduction in painkiller prescriptions.

The Bradford study started by asking how marijuana is affecting prescription drug use. The researchers analyzed a public database of all prescription drugs dispensed and paid for via Medicare’s prescription drug program (Medicare Part D) from 2010 to 2013. The research findings note that many of the Medicare-approved pain medications examined in the study were opioids with similar or higher levels of addictiveness than medical marijuana.

Reclassifying marijuana

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, which places it in the same category as meth and heroine. This means that the government views it as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Bradford says that if marijuana were reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug, it would be legal for a supervising doctor to administer it. That is a necessary requirement to getting a drug covered by Medicare or another third-party insurance reimbursement.

“We do think that one of the most important take-home messages from this study is that physicians and patients are reacting to the availability of medical marijuana as if it’s medicine,” Bradford told LA Weekly. “And that’s just another piece of evidence that we think argues against Schedule 1 status for marijuana.”

Will the federal government ultimately legalize medical marijuana across the US and reclassify the drug, making it easier for physicians to dispense and more affordable for needy patients to obtain? That remains to be seen, but users of medical marijuana can take heart in Bradford’s findings.

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