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Legislators Amend Medical Marijuana Bill to Address Concerns of Governor Cuomo

As end of session nears, patients, families and advocates push Senate and Cuomo to finally pass Compassionate Care Act.

Albany – Today, healthcare professionals and patients continued their response to Governor Cuomo’s demands on medical marijuana. Patients and healthcare professionals are gathering in Albany today to push lawmakers to vote on the Compassionate Care Act, and healthcare professionals who couldn’t travel to Albany issued strong statements in support of the bill. The Compassionate Care Act would create the nation’s most tightly regulated medical marijuana program and allow patients with serious and debilitating conditions to access a small amount of marijuana under the supervision of their healthcare provider. The action and statements come just a day after Governor Cuomo issued a series of last minute demands to amend the bill, some of which are considered “poison pills” by patients, caregivers and providers. Even though Cuomo broke off negotiations around the bill, the bill sponsors, Sen. Savino and Assm. Gottfried, amended the legislation to account for many of the Governor’s concerns.

Patients and healthcare providers are outraged by Governor Cuomo’s attempt to derail the legislation. Providers were particularly disturbed by Cuomo’s claims that the bill had little support from the medical community.

“As a physician and a delegate of the Medical Society of the State of New York, I fully support the Compassionate Care Act,” said Dr. Laura Decker of Kingston. “When Governor Cuomo says that health professionals don’t support the Compassionate Care Act, he isn’t speaking for me or hundreds of other doctors who know that medical marijuana can help alleviate the pain and suffering of some patients. In fact, some of our most respected health organizations, including The New York Academy of Medicine, support the bill. It’s time that the Governor listened to health professionals and patients and get behind the Compassionate Care Act.”

More than 70 organizations support the Compassionate Care Act, including the New York State Nurses Association, the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, the New York Academy of Medicine, the Statewide Breast Cancer Network, the Hospice & Palliative Care Association of New York, 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition, GMHC, New York Physicians for Compassionate Care, and many more.

“As Chair of NY Physicians for Compassionate Care, I represent more than 600 New York physicians who want the ability to recommend medical marijuana for their patients,” said Howard Grossman, MD, of New York City. “Physicians understand that medical marijuana can be a very useful tool for some patients and, compared to other medications, has relatively little risk and minimal side effects. The science is clear, and the medical community stands behind the Compassionate Care Act. It’s time for Governor Cuomo and the Senate leadership to stop stalling and pass the Compassionate Care Act. I hope with the clock running out, the Senate and the Governor don’t let the bill die as they did last year and consign patients to another year of needless suffering.”

Medical marijuana has been considered every year in Albany since 1997. Over the last two years, Compassionate Care NY – a coalition of patients, caregivers, healthcare providers, and dozens and dozens of endorsing organizations – has held numerous meetings with the Cuomo Administration staff to explain the details of the Compassionate Care Act, as well as the medical research and palliative benefits of medical marijuana for patients with illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, severe seizure disorders, and HIV/AIDS. They have also been requesting a meeting with the Governor himself for months and months. To date, the Governor has never met personally with any healthcare providers, patients or caregivers from the group.

“Many healthcare providers support the Compassionate Care Act, and I am one of them, “ said Amy Piperato, MD, an internal medicine physician practicing in Rockland County. “I support the bill, because it gives doctors one more tool to help their patients and because it leaves decision-making about medical marijuana to doctors and patients, not legislators. I also support the bill because I am the mother of a beautiful baby who suffers from a rare and life-threatening seizure disorder. I beg Governor Cuomo and the Senate to let doctors do their jobs and to help my child and thousands of other desperately ill New Yorkers by supporting the Compassionate Care Act.”

Speaking to the media, the Governor said that the issue of medical marijuana should be left to health professionals but then proposed a series of changes to the bill that would create barriers for patients and put bureaucrats in charge of healthcare decisions. For instance, Cuomo would require that physicians recommending medical marijuana be pre-approved by the Department of Health (DOH) and give DOH the ability to over-ride the recommendations of physicians participating in the program in regards to dosing and mode of administration.

“As a physician, and as caregiver to my wife who has Parkinson’s disease, I wholeheartedly support the Compassionate Care Act,” said Richard Carlton, MD, of Port Washington. “Governor Cuomo says that medical marijuana should be left to the health professionals, but then he proposed a bunch of amendments that would essentially violate the doctor-patient relationship and would also allow the government, not doctors, to determine the best course of treatment for patients. Medical marijuana is a relatively safe medication, and doctors are perfectly capable of using it responsibly in their practices. Under the Compassionate Care Act, physicians appropriately are the ones who make a recommendation to patients about whether or not medical marijuana might be beneficial, how it should be administered, and the appropriate dosage. If Governor Cuomo really wants to leave decisions about medical marijuana to medical professionals, he should support the Compassionate Care Act, which does just that.”

Among the list of changes Governor Cuomo wants made to the Compassionate Care Act before he will support it, is the elimination of many of the catastrophic illnesses and debilitating conditions by which patients can become eligible for medical marijuana. Saying he wanted to limit the use of medical marijuana to “serious conditions,” the Governor proposed denying access to people living with Alzheimer’s, ALS, muscular dystrophy, and about ten other diseases.

Adam Tolonsky of Schenectady, said: “I have had the extreme misfortune of being diagnosed with ALS, which has profoundly changed my life physically and mentally. This is an extremely debilitating disease characterized by incredible pain and continuous muscle spasms. Those suffering from ALS are essentially trapped in their bodies, with all senses intact, until they eventually die. I am insulted that Governor Cuomo wants to exclude ALS from the Compassionate Care Act, claiming it isn’t ‘a serious condition.’ I invite Governor Cuomo to walk in my shoes for a day and then decide if ALS should be excluded as a serious condition. Too many people are suffering needlessly. I urge the Governor and the Senate to stop this suffering and pass the Compassionate Care Act now.”

The Governor’s proposed changes would also prevent cancer patients and those living with HIV/AIDS from using medical marijuana to treat the side effects of their medications and chemotherapy, such as nausea, wasting, and pain.

“On behalf of the NYS Breast Cancer Network and the over 125,000 New Yorkers our member organizations reach each year, we urge Governor Cuomo to reconsider these last-minute demands regarding the Compassionate Care Act,” said Andi Gladstone, Executive Director of the NYS Breast Cancer Network. We cannot understand why the Governor would want to deny people going through chemotherapy the safe relief medical marijuana can provide. Are the family, financial, emotional, and employment upheavals suffered by cancer patients not enough? Does the Governor want cancer patients to endure the full force of the rigors of chemotherapy without the relief so readily available from medical marijuana? Does the Governor understand that the so-called ‘side effects’ of chemotherapy can be so life-threatening that patients sometimes need to stop their cancer treatment? This issue is not only about suffering. Access to medical marijuana can make the difference between continuing cancer treatment and stopping cancer treatment. Why wouldn’t the Governor do everything within his power to allow New Yorkers to safely continue and complete cancer treatment? We ask Governor Cuomo to listen to his constituents who know and to allow cancer patients access to medical marijuana.”

Eileen Konieczny, RN, of New Paltz said: “I have 20 years of experience as a bedside nurse — many of those years were spent working with cancer patients. I also cared for my mother and sister as they died from cancer, and I know firsthand that medical marijuana can ease suffering and help patients tolerate harsh medical treatments. We cannot let these patients suffer another year or force them to break the law to get relief. It’s simply unconscionable. If Governor Cuomo truly believes that medical marijuana should be handled by healthcare professionals, then he should get out of the way and support the Compassionate Care Act.”

Another change requested by the Governor is the exclusion of nurse practitioners from recommending medical marijuana.

“As the mother of a child with a life-threatening seizure disorder and a nurse practitioner, I’m appalled at the Governor’s recent actions to undermine the bill with a series of last minute amendments that would leave many suffering patients in New York behind,” said Christine Emerson, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Rochester. “Among the many problems with his proposals is excluding nurse practitioners from being able to recommend medical marijuana to their patients. This isn’t the first time the Governor has tried to amend our scope of practice this year. NP’s have thorough and extensive training and are licensed by the state of New York to prescribe medications, including some of the most addictive and lethal narcotics available. In many areas, NP’s can independently see patients, and this would severely limit their ability to effectively do their jobs. As a mother and a nurse practitioner, I beg the Governor and Senate leadership to support the Compassionate Care Act before more New Yorkers suffer needlessly or, God forbid, die.”

Despite the Governor’s opposition, momentum continues to build as support grows for the Compassionate Care Act. This weekend, GOP Attorney General candidate John Cahill announced his support for the Compassionate Care Act at a press conference saying that the bill strikes the right balance between compassion and control. New York’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer, Attorney General Schneiderman, also reasserted his support for the bill. Senators on both sides of the aisle support the bill, and the bill is believed to have enough support to pass the Senate if brought up for a vote.

“The Governor and the Senate should stop stalling and the pass the Compassionate Care Act,” said Steve Lakomy, MD, from Buffalo. “The science is clear, and doctors want the option of recommending medical marijuana to seriously ill patients who might benefit. This is one more tool that could help physicians alleviate the pain and suffering of some patients with particular serious conditions. It’s time for politicians to stop interfering with medical practice, and let those trained in medicine treat our patients. It’s time for them to pass the Compassionate Care Act.”

Patients, providers, and caregivers intend to maintain a strong presence in Albany to demand the Senate vote on the bill until the session ends on June 19th.

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