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Maryland's medical marijuana plan: Trouble for injured workers

Maryland recently joined the growing body of states that allow the use of medical marijuana. However, it is too early to tell whether or not everyone who needs the drug will have the insurance coverage they need to get it.

For now, injured workers who are receiving treatment for on-the-job accidents through their employer's workers' compensation program can expect to pay the costs of medical marijuana out-of-pocket -- including whatever consultative exam they need to have with a marijuana prescriber. For many injured workers, that's an expense they can't afford.

Workers' comp benefits are usually limited to no more than two-thirds of an employee's regular salary. That can make it difficult to meet any ordinary living expenses, so adding a non-covered medical expense can be impossible. Medical treatment authorized by the workers' comp program is usually covered in full.

The problem with getting insurance companies to cover medical marijuana treatment is simply this: They don't have to. Medical marijuana may be legal now in Maryland and elsewhere, but it is still illegal at the federal level. Insurers won't accept the responsibility for the expense -- even if it can help get an injured worker out of pain and back on his or her feet -- if they can put the costs off on somebody else.

Eventually, Maryland will probably develop case law that will control the issue as injured employees take claims to court. In several states, like New Mexico and New Jersey, the courts have declared medical-grade cannabis costs reimbursable. Insurers there cannot refuse to cover it.

However, injured employees who use medical marijuana to ease chronic pain or another condition after they return to work face additional issues. They could be fired for taking their prescriptions. Employers do not have to make accommodations for workers using medical marijuana once they return to work -- unlike workers who are opiates, muscle relaxants and other drugs that could affect their performance.

In addition, if the employer maintains a drug-free workplace, a worker using prescription cannabis can be fired if he or she fails a random drug test after returning to the job.

The lack of benefits and guarantees for injured employees who need medical marijuana is troubling. Employees are wise to seek legal guidance about both the benefits available to them and the potential problems early on.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "Maryland Workers and Legal Medical Marijuana," RJ Starr, accessed April 25, 2018

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