Pharmacy Trends

Attitudes Shift on Medical Marijuana

A growing number of industry stakeholders are keeping an open mind about reimbursing claims for the medical use of cannabis.
By: | May 24, 2016 • 7 min read

The tide is turning towards paying workers’ compensation claims involving medical marijuana, but many payers remain reticent.

Advertisement




Industry professionals would prefer that the federal government stop classifying the drug as an illegal controlled substance before paying such claims.

Four states — Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and New Mexico — approved workers’ comp reimbursement for the use of medical marijuana, at least publicly, according to Mark Pew, senior vice president at PRIUM in Duluth, Ga.

Courts in New Mexico ruled that carriers must pay for marijuana if a doctor in that state recommends it as part of a claimant’s treatment.

However, some carriers are defying the state court’s order, arguing that it’s illegal under federal law. Still, there seems to be an ongoing shift in risk management and insurance toward paying claims that involve marijuana use.

Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

“I think increasingly, more people with whom I’ve spoken are open to the possibility — that includes physicians, nurses, claims adjusters, and those that influence decisions,” he said.

“They will review based on the clinical efficacy for that particular patient.”

However, not everyone is convinced, as the studies conducted on marijuana are not as definitive as those for FDA-approved drugs, Pew said.

Moreover, professionals still point to the fact that marijuana is classified as illegal by the federal government.

Paying claims for its use could create a legal quandary.

“I think those that not convinced are still the majority of the workers’ comp industry,” Pew said.

“It is a loaded question, because marijuana is a divisive and partisan issue, and personal biases of individuals within the workers’ comp system influence their perceptions on it.”

On top of this, payment decisions based on utilization reviews (UR) are problematic because there are no medical guidelines for medical marijuana, Pew said. In some states UR is the arbiter, in other states UR is but an opinion, and in still others, UR is not supported.

Within workers’ compensation, the two treatment guidelines most used by states are Official Disability Guidelines and ACOEM, although some states have created their own. None currently recommend the medical use of marijuana, regardless of condition.

As such, if UR decisions rely on those guidelines, “the answer would be ‘no’ ” on payment for the drug use, Pew said.

But when reimbursement decisions are made outside of UR, individual biases on the subject of marijuana could have an impact, he said.

“Some will absolutely not consider marijuana as medicine and refuse reimbursement,” Pew said.

“Others may have personal experience or know someone that cannabis helped and be willing to consider it.”

“At no time in our history has a state government required the reimbursement for use of a substance that is illegal under in the eyes of the federal government.” — Nichole Wilson, director, pharmacy product development, Coventry Workers’ Comp Services

When it comes to evaluating the clinical efficacy of medical marijuana, practitioners should look at whether benefits exceed the risks, level of function and activity, quality of life, and whether the addition of medical marijuana could help discontinue the use of such dangerous drugs such as OxyContin, Alprazolam, Xanax and Soma, he said.

Advertisement




“In other words, evaluate the appropriateness of cannabis as you would any other drug or treatment — does it work or not for that specific patient? That has been the case in the four states where reimbursement is being done, and the way in which the tide seems to be turning,” Pew said.

The use of medical marijuana for chronic pain is growing more and more popular — as of February 2016, 26 percent of all registered medical cannabis patients in New Mexico usde it for chronic pain, Pew said.

Moreover, 46 percent of registered patients use it for PTSD.

These numbers include all registered patients, not just injured workers, but those conditions are obviously applicable to workers’ comp.

Chronic pain is typically included as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis programs around the country, with Minnesota adding a very narrowly defined “intractable pain” to its list of approved uses as of Aug. 1.

“All of this means that medical cannabis is a burgeoning issue, with evolving science and opinions, and is absolutely pertinent to workers’ comp both now and into the future,” Pew said.

“And if marijuana is ever made legal and/or rescheduled at the federal level, the conversation changes dramatically.”

Lisa Anne Forsythe, senior consultant, regulatory business consulting and analysis, at Coventry Workers’ Comp Services in Sacramento, Calif., said “the tide is definitely turning.”

She has been working on the issue from a regulatory, legal and financial/billing perspective.

There were no medical marijuana claims whatsoever until after the recent appellate rulings in New Mexico, the first state in the country to allow medical marijuana as a compensable benefit.

“It simply wasn’t an issue from a legal, regulatory and financial standpoint until then,” Forsythe said.

Paucity of Evidence

Don Lipsy, Coventry’s manager, pharmacy regulatory communications in Tucson Ariz., said there are “burgeoning pockets” of utilization of medical marijuana related to workers’ comp injuries. While Coventry has not had claims, they’ve heard secondhand of claims being paid by others.

“We’re seeing an expansion of use as an alternative to opioids, and my concern is that we might be trying so hard to address the opioid epidemic that we are treating medical marijuana as a silver bullet,” Lipsy said.

“I’m not so sure we aren’t trading one issue for another.”

Advertisement




From a clinical perspective, there are still a lot of people on the fence on whether or not marijuana is useful, said Nichole Wilson, Coventry’s director of pharmacy product development in Omaha, Neb.

“The evaluation of benefits versus risks are on most clinicians’ minds,” Wilson said.

“Since it’s still classified by the federal government as an illegal Schedule 1 controlled substance, there is not a preponderance of clinical evidence evaluating the drug, and that is a challenge to the medical community.”

“The tide is turning towards public acceptance of medical marijuana, with 169 million people living in the jurisdictions that have legalized it.” — Gregory McKenna, vice president and counsel for governmental affairs, Gallagher Bassett Services

Moreover, there’s a lot of concern about possible interactions of medical marijuana might have with other treatments as well as its potential benefits, Forsythe said.

“But there is also comparatively little discussion on the practical, legal and financial implications associated with the adoption of medical marijuana as a compensable benefit at this time, and that is something that really needs to be talked about,” she said.

“That was definitely one of the larger topics within the New Mexico bill. When we tell an insurance company that medical marijuana is a mandated covered benefit, this is precedent-setting — at no time in our history has a state government required the reimbursement for use of a substance that is illegal under in the eyes of the federal government.”

The Federal Conundrum

The liability implications of paying for an illegal substance need to be more thoroughly examined, experts said.

For example, the use of the federal banking system to pay for the illegal drug could that trigger federal criminal action under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), Forsythe said.

“Financial institutions are loathe to potentially run afoul of RICO and have avoided doing business with dispensaries, etc., due to liability concerns,” she said. “Insurance companies face a similar exposure.”

Gregory McKenna, vice president and counsel for governmental affairs, Gallagher Bassett Services

Gregory McKenna, vice president and counsel for governmental affairs, Gallagher Bassett Services

Gregory McKenna, vice president and counsel for governmental affairs for Gallagher Bassett Services in Itasca, Ill., said the TPA’s workers’ comp resolution managers “are on the front line,” since they decide whether medical marijuana is a compensable treatment.

First, since federal banking restrictions make it illegal for providers of medical marijuana to use FDIC-approved banks, payment to them has to be made in cash, McKenna said. As such, the claimant needs to pay the provider in cash, and then the claimant has to be reimbursed by check.

“Payors have to make decisions to proceed with a reimbursement to the claimant, which is further complicated by a series of federal criminal statutes related to marijuana transactions,” he said.

“This is out of the realm of what we do normally, so it is a new frontier.”

Another significant challenge lies in the fact that the industry has few decision-support tools for medical marijuana, such as clinical intervention to alert workers’ comp decision-makers to potential interactions between medical marijuana and other medications or medical bill review processes to ensure proper dosage or utilization.

Advertisement




“However, the tide is turning towards public acceptance of medical marijuana, with 169 million people living in the jurisdictions that have legalized it,” McKenna said.

“Because of that volume of people, now the DEA and other federal agencies are taking a very careful look at reclassifying medical marijuana to make it legal.”

The agencies are also looking at naming very specific components of marijuana, to determine whether there may be some additional benefits to those components. That could open up additional research to take a clinical look at the efficacy of medical marijuana.

“This and decriminalization could lead to more workers’ comp payments within the industry,” he said.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

Advertisement




Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

Advertisement




We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

Advertisement




Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

Advertisement




Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

Advertisement




More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]