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Pa. health department faces lawmaker questioning over medical marijuana doctor data

The agency has sued to keep secret how often individual doctors approve patients for medical marijuana.

  • Ed Mahon/Spotlight PA
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania patients must receive approval from a physician if they want to legally use cannabis in the state. (Leise Hook / For Spotlight PA)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania patients must receive approval from a physician if they want to legally use cannabis in the state. (Leise Hook / For Spotlight PA)

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

During a recent budget hearing, a Republican lawmaker questioned how the Department of Health uses data to provide oversight of doctors in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, citing ongoing public records disputes involving the agency.

The state’s Office of Open Records has ordered the health department to release the number of approvals by specific doctors if such records exist. But the agency has sued to keep those records secret, arguing for a broader interpretation of the medical marijuana law’s confidentiality rules.

At least three cases that center on the issue are currently pending in Commonwealth Court. Spotlight PA is a defendant in two of them.

State Sen. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland) referred to those cases as he questioned Debra Bogen, the state’s acting health secretary. He didn’t ask Bogen to comment on releasing the data.

“But I would like to know if your department does do reviews of this information,” Rothman said. “And does the department protect against doctors from providing blanket approvals for medical marijuana use?”

Bogen didn’t directly say how the agency uses the data or clarify whether it routinely reviews the information for patterns or outliers. Instead, she said the department responds to complaints against doctors, and doctors have to attest that they’re following requirements of the law in order to certify patients.

“Looking at the numbers of certifications done by a specific provider is challenging because there are health care providers that, by the nature of their work, would certify more patients than others,” Bogen testified. “And just looking at the numbers alone doesn’t really give us that information.”

Rothman’s questions follow a series of Spotlight PA investigative stories that uncovered serious flaws in the medical marijuana program, including questionable health claims, weak oversight of cannabis companies, and unfair rules for doctors.

Publicly available records obtained by Spotlight PA show the department has cited patient approval numbers in at least one disciplinary case against a doctor. In another disciplinary case against a doctor, an attorney for the health agency argued that “the total number of patients versus his time and ability to certify patients is relevant.”

In response to questions from Spotlight PA, health department spokesperson Mark O’Neill said it reviews approval data in limited situations, and it “has only used the information as part of enforcement actions that resulted from a patient complaint or compliance investigation.”

O’Neill also defended not releasing approval data publicly, saying that unless courts rule differently, the agency “will continue to interpret the law in the manner most protective of patient and practitioner information consistent with its ongoing commitment to privacy rights and confidentiality.”

As of late March, there were more than 425,000 active certifications for medical marijuana patients, and there were more than 1,800 approved practitioners in the program — a relatively small percentage of the tens of thousands of licensed doctors in the state. In order for doctors to participate in the program, they must register with the state and complete a four-hour training program.

Some medical professionals, including medical marijuana supporters, argue the health agency should audit doctor records to ensure compliance and not rely solely on patient complaints to initiate investigations.

In February, an editorial from TribLIVE urged the health department to release approval data. It argued that the information could provide important context for medical marijuana approvals and help reveal “if the process is deliberative or if just paying for certification is an all-access pass beyond the program’s velvet rope.”

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