Some hospitals unsure of Cuomo pot plan

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Memorial Sloan-Kettering. (Memorial Sloan-Kettering)
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Dan Goldberg

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Some of the state's leading cancer centers are uncertain about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan for medical marijuana, raising questions about the overall feasibility of the initiative.

“My understanding is that we have not yet had any discussion about whether or how we would participate in the governor's plan,” said Andrea Molinatti, a spokeswoman for Sloan-Kettering, nor was she aware of anyone from the state reaching out to the hospital.

The governor wants to use the 1980 Olivieri law to allow his commissioner of health to obtain marijuana and choose as many as 20 hospitals to dispense the drug.

Neither NYU Langone nor New York Presbyterian responded when asked if they were considering participating. 

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But the state has had some success. A state official with knowledge of the program said Northshore LIJ and New York City's Health and Hospitals Corporation have expressed interest.

Donald L. Trump, president and CEO of Roswell Cancer Center in Buffalo, said he was also considering the program.

“There are many questions that need to be addressed, but yes I'm very interested in evaluating things,” Trump said.

The issue for hospitals is that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. True, the Obama Justice Department has said it will not prosecute dispensaries operating under a state run medical marijuana program, but the problem any hospital CEO must consider is how the next president's justice department will react.

And executives are required to certify that their hospital is in compliance with all federal laws before they can accept payments from the government, which make up the bulk of most hospitals revenues. Beyond Medicare and Medicaid payments, hospitals rely on the IRS to maintain their non-profit status. They would technically be committing a crime in the course of their regular paperwork.

“The justice department has made it very clear they won't interfere or prosecute people acting under strong state medical marijuana law,” said Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly's health committee. “But it's very different to expect the federal government to closely cooperate with hospitals that participate in a program that could still be violating federal law. I think hospitals have serious legal concerns as to whether their federal license to handle other controlled substances would be in jeopardy.”

Last summer, Massachusetts hospitals also wrestled with this problem, and ultimately decided to stay on the sidelines.

Larry Vernaglia, a partner in Boston with Foley & Lardner, which represents hospitals, said he was not aware of any in his state that had applied for a medical marijuana license. He said any hospital considering dispensing marijuana would be wise to inform federal authorities they are doing so and ask their opinion upfront.

For a hospital to go forward, he said, it “would have to really view a compelling patient need in (its) community that isn't otherwise going to be met."

“I don't know that many hospitals will look at the amount of effort required and say there is a corresponding patient-care benefit,” he said. “If New York wants to do something around medical marijuana, they probably need some kind of legislation like we have in Massachusetts.”

The Greater New York Hospital Association, which was not consulted before Cuomo announced his plans, said some hospitals it represents have showed a desire to learn more.

“Several hospitals have expressed interest in exploring the option of providing medical marijuana to their patients, but recognize that a number of issues need to be addressed, including the federal prohibition on marijuana and hospitals’ clinical and operational priorities,” said Brian Conway, spokesman for GNYHA. “GNYHA will assess the proposed plan when more details are available, and expects to work closely with the New York State Department of Health as the plan is developed.”

Gottfried, who sponsored the Compassionate Care Act, a medical marijuana bill that passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate, said Thursday morning that the Olivieri law was inadequate.

“I think people in the administration understand how seriously limited the 1980 law is and I think they understand that to do a program that will actually work will require new legislation,” Gottfried said. “Clearly, that's not reflected in the written material from the state of the state speech.”

UPDATE: A spokeswoman for NYU Langone Medical Center said Friday morning that the hospital has thus far not had any discussions with regard to becoming a medical marijuana dispensary.