Why Your Health Insurance Won’t Cover Medical Marijuana

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Medical marijuana has been legalized in 23 states and Washington D.C., and for countless cancer patients, epileptics, chronic pain sufferers, and people with numerous other conditions, cannabis provides an effective treatment preferable to other drugs. Unfortunately, if you use medical cannabis in America, your health insurance will not provide an ounce of assistance in paying for this medicine.

Marijuana use is on the rise in the United States, and whether you use it for recreational or medical purposes, you can still be fired for testing positive for marijuana use in a state where it’s legal. Cannabis users in America are getting a lot of mixed signals these days, and that’s largely because of conflicting laws. Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, large companies who operate in multiple states don’t want to risk prosecution. Those companies include employers who don’t want to condone illegal activity, as well as — you guessed it — health insurance companies.

Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act puts it in the same category as the most dangerous drugs out there. In the eyes of federal lawmakers, cannabis therefore has the highest potential for abuse and no medical purpose whatsoever, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The other problem insurers have with medical marijuana is that it isn’t approved by the FDA. But marijuana’s Schedule I status makes it very difficult to conduct the clinical studies that might make that possible. With all of these bureaucratic obstacles in place, patients shouldn’t expect insurers to cover medical marijuana, at least in the next few years.

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To the average citizen, marijuana’s classification makes no sense. To a medical cannabis user who relies on the plant for treatment, it’s downright infuriating. The American Medical Association has called for a change in marijuana’s classification to one that makes it easier for more research to be conducted. Existing research has shown marijuana is safer than both tobacco and alcohol. Even the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a government agency, has publicly admitted to marijuana’s medical benefits, including the elimination of cancer cells.

Nevertheless, reclassifying marijuana is unlikely to happen anytime soon according to The Brookings Institution, largely because “the politics surrounding administrative rescheduling are unfavorable.”

In the current economic climate, many patients struggle to afford medical marijuana. If small doses of the medicine give you sufficient relief, the lack of health insurance coverage may not be a huge burden. But for others, especially those who use it daily or before every meal to boost appetite, medical marijuana can cost as much as $1,000 per month.

Some low-income patients may be able to get a price break from their dispensary, depending on state regulations. The initial registration price can sometimes be brought down as well. In New Jersey, for example, the $200 fee can be reduced to $20 for patients on Medicaid, Social Security Disability, SSI, or food assistance. In New Mexico, worker’s compensation is required to cover medical cannabis.

Patients with chronic conditions sometimes elect to grow their own cannabis to cut costs, provided they live in a state where it’s legal to do so.

These aren’t the best solutions when it comes to health coverage, but medical marijuana users simply don’t have a lot of options. Even if the FDA approves medicinal marijuana, there’s no guarantee insurance coverage will become widespread. Some insurers may refuse to get involved. And because the employer-sponsor health care model persists in America, it’s the employers who often have control over people’s insurance. Big companies may not want to include medical marijuana on employee plans. Some companies won’t even foot the bill for government-mandated contraceptive coverage, so it will be no surprise if marijuana isn’t welcomed with open arms.