Colorado medical marijuana patients will have to return to in-person visits with their doctors soon unless an executive order allowing telemedicine appointments is extended.
In March, Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order temporary lifting a state law requiring physical examinations for medical marijuana recommendations; he did so in order to prevent possible COVID-19 exposure for both patients and medical professionals. That order was set to expire in April, but was extended until May 30. Now, as the new end date approaches, doctors and patients alike are beginning to worry that it won't be extended again.
According to medical marijuana physician Peter Pryor, more than half of his patients are immunocompromised, which makes a telemedicine appointment not only useful, but advised. He's not the only one to embrace remote appointments: Denver medical marijuana practitioner Cohen Medical Centers is also using telemedicine exclusively, and Boulder's Holos Health has been holding appointments over the phone.
"While I have been performing telemedicine, some of my patients have developed coughs and fevers consistent with a viral syndrome. Others have been tested for COVID. Some refuse to be tested. Many of these patients would have come to my office to see me," Pryor writes in a letter that he sent to Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "In my office on a daily basis we see patients in their seventies. We also see patients in their twenties and thirties." The average age of an MMJ patient is close to 45, he notes.
Pryor would like visits via telemedicine to be made a permanent option for MMJ patients in Colorado, but that would require a change to the Colorado Medical Practice Act, a law that regulates much of the state's health-care industry and allows practitioners to conduct appointments and physical exams through telemedicine for non-emergency medical visits — except for medical marijuana-related appointments. Or the Colorado Medical Board could reverse a 2015 rule it made banning medical marijuana from telemedicine practice.
In the meantime, though, Pryor wants to see the executive order allowing telemedicine extended as the pandemic continues. With just over a week left before that order expires, the governor's office has been noncommital about an extension, but hasn't closed the door, either. According to Polis spokesman Conor Cahill, the governor would be open to changing the law permanently via legislation.
"Right now the governor is focused on prioritizing the health and safety of Coloradans, which includes providing convenient health care options. The governor will continue to evaluate the need for all executive orders as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds," Cahill says in an email. "The legislature would have to act to make medical marijuana telemedicine permanent when the COVID-19 disaster emergency comes to a close, which he would be receptive to."
The CDPHE echoes the statement sent by Cahill.
CDPHE requirements currently dictate that new medical marijuana patients document their qualifying conditions with recommending physicians, and that can entail in-person visits. But Colorado wouldn't be the first state to change the rules and allow even a first appointment through telemedicine: California, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all allow such visits for new MMJ patients.
And if Colorado's telemedicine option does expire? "I will be seeing patients in their cars again," Pryor says.
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