A Pennsylvania court just ruled that state workers' compensation programs must reimburse patients for the cost of medical marijuana.
The ruling was issued in the case of Paul Sheetz, who sued his former employer, Firestone Tire & Rubber, for refusing to cover his medical cannabis costs under their workers' comp plan. Sheetz had been legally using medical cannabis to treat chronic pain stemming from a workplace injury he suffered in 1977. Firestone refused to cover the cost of this medicine, however, arguing that federal law prohibited them from paying for a controlled substance.
The state Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board ruled against Sheetz in the case, but he appealed to a higher court. Last week, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court agreed to overturn the board's decision, arguing that it violated both the state's Medical Marijuana Act (MMA) and its Workers' Compensation Act (WC). The court also ruled that Firestone and its insurers would not be committing a federal crime by reimbursing these costs, as they are not paying for or prescribing cannabis themselves.
“The MMA specifically mandates that no medical marijuana patients be denied any rights for lawful use of medical marijuana and the WC Act provides employees a statutory right to WC medical expenses that are reasonable and necessary to treat a work injury,” Judge Anne Covey wrote, NORML reports. “Given the General Assembly’s clear declaration and intention in enacting the MMA, and the MMA’s unambiguous statutory language, it is free from doubt that the medical marijuana system the General Assembly created for the well-being and safety of patients, including claimants, was intended for them to have access to the latest medical treatments.”
Sadly, Sheetz died before the appellate court resolved the case in his favor. But even though he cannot personally benefit from the court's decision, the ruling sets a precedent that will require all state workers' comp programs to cover eligible cannabis costs for other injured workers. Insurers will only have to reimburse costs in cases where patients are legally using medical marijuana as their primary form of treatment for a work-related injury, however.
“I am so excited that the Commonwealth Court, in their wisdom, agreed that workers comp carriers are required to reimburse injured workers who use medical marijuana to treat severe and often life-long injuries,” said Jenifer Kaufman, the attorney who represented Sheetz’s estate, according to Business Insurance. “This is a game-changer for those injured workers who have worked hard to get off dangerous and expensive opioids and are forced to pay the cost of medical marijuana treatment out of their fixed incomes.”
“For millions of patients, cannabis is a legitimate therapeutic option,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a statement. “More and more, lawmakers, regulators, and the courts are recognizing this fact and evolving their opinions and policies accordingly.”
The vast majority of US states have now legalized at least some form of medical cannabis, but these states have not come to a consensus as to whether or not workers' comp programs should cover the cost of weed. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York all require workers' comp insurance plans to reimburse costs for relevant medical cannabis expenses. But Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, and Washington all explicitly prohibit these programs from covering cannabis costs.
Two Minnesota medical cannabis patients attempted to resolve the issue once and for all by taking their case to the US Supreme Court. These patients each filed separate legal challenges after their workers' comp plans refused to pay their medical pot costs after they were injured on the job. After having their claims denied in state courts, the plaintiffs appealed all the way up to the country's highest court. The Supreme Court has so far refused to take sides in any cannabis-related case, though, and ultimately chose not to weigh in on these cases, either.
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