A new study has found that states with a medical marijuana program have reduced costs to Medicare Part D, as well as reduced prescription drug use. The study, published in Health Affairs, looked at drugs like antidepressants, muscle relaxants, opioids, and sedatives for which marijuana is used as an alternative treatment.
Researchers examined Medicare Part D spending from 2010 to 2013 and found that medical marijuana saved Medicare about $165 million in 2013–if medical cannabis was legal nationwide, it would save the program about $470 million per year. 25 states and the District of Columbia currently have medical marijuana laws, a number that’s expected to increase in November elections.
As well as saving taxpayer money, the study found that the annual number of daily doses prescribed by doctors for conditions like anxiety, depression, pain, nausea, and sleep disorders, was also greatly reduced. Medical marijuana use reduced the number of painkiller prescriptions, including opioids, by about 1,800 daily doses filled each year per doctor. Unlike opioids, marijuana doesn’t carry the same risk of addiction and/or overdose.
Critics say that while medical cannabis may be saving Medicare money, patients still have to pay for the drug out-of-pocket. As cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug–considered to have a high potential for abuse without medical benefits–insurance companies don’t cover the cost. Veterans with PTSD and other conditions risk having their benefits revoked by the VA if they choose to use medical marijuana as an alternative treatment.
In an interview with NPR, one of the authors of the study, W. David Bradford, said that should “marijuana become a regular part of patient care nationally, the cost curve would bend because marijuana is cheaper than other drugs.”
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