To fight addiction, Gonzalez backs insurance for medical marijuana

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BOSTON — To address the extreme toll of opioid addiction, Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez on Tuesday said he would require health insurers and the state's MassHealth program to cover the cost of medical marijuana when it is prescribed by a physician for someone suffering from addiction.

"The point here is, we've got to be bold about taking on this crisis and trying some new things," Gonzalez told the News Service.

A total of 1,977 people in Massachusetts died of suspected or confirmed opioid overdoses in 2017, and the addiction crisis claimed 2,155 lives in 2016.

Gonzalez, a former health insurance executive, said medical marijuana coverage was not an option for enrollees at CeltiCare Health, where he was CEO, because the insurer primarily covered MassHealth patients whose benefits were not discretionary.

State law features a list of conditions that can make patients eligible for medical marijuana, and Gonzalez said that while doctors could approve marijuana under a catch-all provision covering debilitating conditions, "what I am proposing is that it be explicitly listed as permissible."

Under his proposal, medical marijuana insurance coverage would not extend to people already OK'd to use the drug to treat nonaddiction conditions.

Forbes reported Monday on studies published by the American Medical Association from the University of Georgia at Athens, and the University of Kentucky and Emory University, that found "letting people legally access marijuana appears to reduce reliance on addictive opioids."

Gonzalez also declared his support for safe-injection facilities, which are illegal but have drawn interest from some state lawmakers as a way to steer addicts into treatment and reduce overdose deaths. Under pending bills, individuals could use illegal drugs at facilities staffed by health care professionals. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he remains unconvinced of the efficacy of safe injection sites.

If elected, Gonzalez also would transition civilly committed individuals out of Department of Correction-run addiction treatment facilities and into alternative treatment; require state and county correction officials to screen inmates for drug dependency and provide medication-assisted treatment when medically appropriate; and require pharmaceutical companies to include addiction warnings on opioid packaging, similar to those required for tobacco.

House and Senate Democrats who recently negotiated a compromise criminal justice reform bill opted to leave out a requirement that medication-assisted treatment be made available to anyone incarcerated in state jails or prison struggling with addiction.

Gonzalez, who chaired the Health Connector Authority while serving in Gov. Deval Patrick's administration, said he would also make training concerning the dangers of opioids a condition of licensure for physicians, dentists and other health care professionals; require physicians who prescribe opioids to provide oral warnings to patients; and launch public service announcements and education campaigns about opioid addiction dangers.

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