New Mexico Court again rules for worker in medical marijuana case

New Mexico Court again rules for worker in medical marijuana case | Insurance Business America

New Mexico Court again rules for worker in medical marijuana case

While insurers and employers typically fight efforts to require workers’ compensation to cover the costs of a patient’s medical marijuana, some say the use of medical marijuana can actually reduce health care costs.

A recent ruling by the New Mexico Court of Appeals that a patient in the state’s medical marijuana program who was injured on the job must be reimbursed by an employer for the expense of marijuana used for treatment shines a light on this and other questions.

It was the third time in the last year that New Mexico courts have sided with medical marijuana patients in workers’ compensation cases.

“Medical cannabis is much less expensive than many pain medications and other procedures. It has saved large amounts of money for many patients I have worked with and their insurance companies,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the national Marijuana Policy Project. “It has also allowed many patients to go back to work by treating their symptoms better than other medications have. Embracing patients’ ability to have this treatment option — as long as they are not impaired at work — is not only good for patients’ wellbeing, it can also help with cost savings.”

In the most recent case, appellate Judge James Wechsler ruled that a workers’ compensation judge was correct in ruling that American General Media, which owns several radio stations in New Mexico, had to reimburse Sandra Lewis of Albuquerque for her use of medical cannabis.

American General Media and third-party administrator Gallagher Bassett Services had appealed a 2013 decision by a workers’ compensation judge. The companies argued the state’s medical marijuana law created a conflict with federal law that prohibits all use of marijuana.

Neither American General nor Gallagher Bassett responded to requests for comment.

Minda McGonagle, New Mexico state director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), says the ruling is scary. “There are several layers of concern,” she says. In order to comply with workers’ comp laws, she says employers must maintain a drug-free work environment. “What happens when a worker who has used medical marijuana comes back to work?” she asks. “As an employer, when you know someone is using marijuana that creates a murky situation at best. It is hard not to be fearful. It seems like there is no clear path to compliance,” she said.

Her thoughts were echoed by Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel to NFIB nationally. She said businesses need to work very closely with their insurance carriers. “We advise all employers to implement drug-free workplace policies so that all employees know the rules.”

She said questions related to medical marijuana and the workplace will continue to be the subject of both confusion and litigation, and that the conflict between state and federal laws creates a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t situation.”