Brain and Body

Study Finds Medical Marijuana Could Save Medicare Hundreds of Millions of Dollars

July 18, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Neon sign advertizing medical marijuana
Photo credit: Laurie Avocado/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

A new study finds medical marijuana is reducing the use of other drug prescriptions.

The potential for medical marijuana to ease the pain and suffering for patients whose ailments have been identified as suitable for treatment with the plant is the predominant argument for its legalization, but researchers at the University of Georgia have combed through the data to find a new argument for medical marijuana — nearly half a billion dollars in savings for the Medicare program, according to their study.

“One of the questions about medical marijuana legalization is whether or not it is actually medicine or whether it is just a backdoor way to approve recreational marijuana,” said study co-author W. David Bradford, who is the Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the university’s School of Public and International Affairs.

“What our evidence is suggesting is the response patients are having, and the physicians are having, is that there is a significant amount of clinical use at work here,” he said in a video posted to YouTube by the university. “There are cost savings to be had.”

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Since 1996, when California became the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, a slow but steady wave of acceptance has swept across the country with 24 more states and the District of Columbia legalizing medical marijuana including Alaska, Oregon and Washington in 1998 and Ohio and Pennsylvania as recently as June of this year.

Looking over data from 2010 to 2013 for all the prescriptions filled under Medicare Part D, the part of the federal health insurance program that provides subsidized prescription drug benefits, the researchers found that savings from lower prescription drug use for ailments also treated by marijuana came out to roughly $162.2 million, according to a media release from the university.

In 2013 only 17 states had legalized the use of medical marijuana and the researchers estimate that had every state made the drug available savings could have reached $468 million, according to the university.

The study's findings were published in the July issue of Health Affairs.

“Compared to Medicare Part D's 2013 budget of $103 billion, those savings would have been 0.5 percent. But it's enough of a difference to show that, in states where it's legal, some people are turning to the drug as an alternative to prescription medications for ailments that range from pain to sleep disorders,” according to the university.

In the view of the federal government, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no recognized medicinal value, a high potential for abuse, and is grouped with the likes of heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Because of the plant’s quasi-legal and medical status, doctors in states where medical marijuana is allowed are only permitted to suggest using marijuana to treat ailments, but are prohibited from prescribing it.

W. David Bradford explains some of the stigma surrounding medical marijuana. Credit: YouTube video by the University of Georgia

"Doctors can recommend marijuana and in some states can sign a form to help you get a card, but at that point you go out of the medical system and into the dispensaries," said Bradford. "What does this mean? Do you then go less frequently to the doctor and maybe your non-symptomatic hypertension, elevated blood sugar and elevated cholesterol go unmanaged? If that's the case, that could be a negative consequence to this."

According Ashley Bradford, the study’s lead author, follow up research will focus on medical marijuana's impact on the cost of Medicaid, a state and federal health insurance program that focuses on low-income individuals.

"The results suggest people are really using marijuana as medicine and not just using it for recreational purposes," Bradford said.

According to the university, researchers expect a study on Medicaid to yield savings similar to those seen with Medicare and further bolster the argument for national medical marijuana legalization, if not for the sake of the patient, for the sake of helping to relieve the health programs’ massive budgets.

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