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Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

By Marguerite Arnold
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There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.

However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.

Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.

Unintended Effects & Consequences

Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.

The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.

What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.

There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.

At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.

According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.

What Is Causing The Situation?

The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.

High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were

However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.

However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.

That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.

With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.

Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.

Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.

If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.

That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.

Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.

The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.

BobHobanAttorney
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Health Care Industry Cannot Ignore Cannabis Any Longer

By Robert T. Hoban, Esq.
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Twenty-four U.S. states now have some form of medical marijuana legalization on the books. These states allow patients with a variety of qualifying conditions to possess and cultivate cannabis lawfully as a treatment for such medical conditions. The number of states allowing medical cannabis is set to increase dramatically, as various additional state legislatures have bills or ballot measures pending on this topic. You can read more about this topic here.

The federal government surprisingly already has their hands in medical marijuana. The federal government sends free, pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes to a special, albeit dwindling, group of patients on a regular basis and they have been doing so since 1976. This is a product of the 1976 federal Investigational New Drug Program (Compassionate Access I.N.D.), which still operates, but was closed in 1992 to any new patients. 

The U.S. Government holds a federal patent for therapeutic cannabinoid use (US6630507 B1). The patent, “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” (LINK) covers a method of treating diseases by applying a therapeutically effective amount of cannabinoids derived from marijuana. In addition, the White House website provides links to government-funded research projects involving medical marijuana. Presently, the links show 219 completed projects and 95 projects in progress.

On June 23, 2015, the American Medical Association adopted the formal position that marijuana is a form of medicine. Reliable scientific studies address the medical efficacy of the use of medical cannabis for an increasing number of conditions. Medical cannabis is here to stay and the health care industry needs to pay close attention.

 Simply put, the health care industry has been resistant to beginning the study of medical marijuana. This does not bode well for health care systems that will see more patients utilizing various forms of medical cannabis. Moreover, this is not a sustainable health care business model. With an increased focus on alternative forms of medicine and treatment both by practitioners and health care insurance providers, it is imperative that the health care industry studies the facts.

The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration began requiring employers and insurers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana when the state’s health care provider fee schedule took effect January 1, 2016. Workers compensation claimants can be reimbursed up to $12.02 per gram of marijuana for up to 226.8 grams of marijuana per year, according to the fee schedule. Such reimbursements were ordered after the New Mexico Court of Appeals had ruled three times since May, 2014 that medical marijuana should be classified as reasonable and necessary medical care for injured workers.

The same momentum is impacting Latin America. Brazil’s governmental health care agency, ANVISA, recently removed a component of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), from the list of banned substances, meaning the marijuana molecule can now be prescribed by physicians for treating seizures, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and other ailments. As such, ANVISA has approved the importation of CBD from the United States.

More and more research studies are published every year. In the National Center for Biotechnology Information database of biomedical literature, 4,516 medical abstracts reference both cannabis and cannabinoids. Still the vast majority of medical schools do not educate students about the human endocannabinoid system.

Denis Petro, a neurologist and pharmacologist, researches cannabis as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. He founded Patients Out of Time, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on the endocannabinoid system. “At present, conventional treatments for spasticity are unsatisfactory,” Dr. Petro wrote, in an article, Indications for Therapeutic Use of Cannabis. “Based on scientific evidence, cannabis is a safe and effective alternative when compared to conventional treatments.”

Physicians in Colorado can recommend marijuana and the Colorado Constitution legally protects them (Article XVII, Section 14). The Colorado Constitution gives physicians immunity for advising a patient about the risks and benefits of medical marijuana for a debilitating medical condition, and for recommending medical marijuana to a patient.

Moreover, physicians have a duty to care for their patients, and that includes considering medical marijuana if it would help that patient. Consequently, by understanding the health benefits and the particularized sources of liability, physicians can lend clarity to the medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana policy changes may lead to uncertainty, most questions about the marijuana industry, including the risks and its related legality, have answers. The problem is that health care providers and insurance companies do not know where to turn for this information.

I delivered a number of presentations concerning this topic to various provider and insurance-related entities across the country serving our health care system. It is evident that many of these health care related entities can move forward with a better understanding of the risk implications and devise better informed strategies to incorporate medical cannabis into their operational plans, whether for now or in the near future.

An understanding of the researched health benefits of medical marijuana is increasingly necessary for physicians and other members of our health care system. A conservative approach is certainly advisable, but it is more than just a good thing to learn about; it is a necessity in this day and age to remain relevant and informed. This needs to happen now. And the providers that take appropriate steps soon will be better positioned to deal with these issues as they become increasingly prevalent.