As we previously discussed in Medical Marijuana 103: Patient and Practitioner Regulations in New York State, practitioners in New York must be registered with the New York State Department of Health (“DOH”) in order to certify patients for medical marijuana use. The DOH maintains a list of registered practitioners on its website, however such list is woefully incomplete. As of the date of this writing there are over 1,360 providers statewide that are registered to certify patients for medical marijuana, but only 32 percent are included on the public list maintained by the DOH.

On Wednesday, November 28, 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill which requires the the DOH to list on its website all practitioners who are certified to recommend medical marijuana to patients.

Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), the primary sponsor of the bill, stated that one of the biggest complaints from patients in the medical marijuana program was finding a registered doctor.

“People complained that it was difficult to find a doctor near them so they could  be certified as a patient. Because the Department of Health kept the list proprietary, it made it that much harder for patients,” said Senator Savino.

A vote on the bill was held in June 2017, with 62 senators voting in favor of the bill and only 1 senator opposing it. The bill requires that the name, contact information, and other information relating to practitioners registered with the DOH to certify patients for medical marijuana be public information and that the information be maintained on the DOH’s website in searchable form. There is an exception, however – practitioners may still opt-out if they do not wish for their information to be public by informing the DOH in writing. The new requirements will be implemented sixty (60) days after the bill was signed into law by Governor Cuomo.

Sen. Savino was also the main proponent of the bill signed on November 11, 2017 by the Governor which adds post traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions treatable with medical marijuana in New York State. The date on which the bill was signed into law is no coincidence, as veterans groups in particular had urged Governor Cuomo to allow those with PTSD to use medical marijuana. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about eight million adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, including tens of thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Somewhere between 11% and 20% of those vets will suffer from it each year.

Stemming from the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has had life-lasting effects for many of its residents, including children, due to unsafe lead-related toxicity levels in the drinking water, New York State Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, announced that various New York municipalities were awarded $20 million dollars in the aggregate to replace lead service lines as part of the New York Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 (the “Act”). The Lead Service Line Replacement Program (the “LSLRP”), a critical part of the Act, provides $2,445,452 to Long Island, including $611,363 to the City of Glen Cove and $611,363 to the Town of Hempstead. Other awardees include New York City ($5,323,904), Buffalo ($567,492), as well as many other cities, towns and counties throughout the state.  In his press release, Governor Cuomo stated “[t]hese critical improvements to New York’s drinking water infrastructure are vital to protecting public health and to laying the foundation for future growth and economic prosperity in these communities”.

The LSLRP was introduced in 2017 and is intended to provide funding to municipalities to replace residential lead service lines, especially those that have corroded, from the public water system. The program empowers the New York State Department of Health to award funds to certain municipalities determined by the “percentage of children with elevated blood levels, median household income, and the number of homes built before 1939”. In fact, homes built before 1930 are more likely to contain lead in its pipes because at that time the government neither regulated this area nor the applicable construction practices.

In addition to the Act, New York has increased its attention to this cause, especially focused on children, who are most at risk for lead-related negative health effects, by requiring health providers to test every child for lead in his or her blood when reaching 1 and 2 years old. Further, in 2016, Governor Cuomo took a bold step by requiring all public schools to test their water for lead as well as mandating those results be made public.

It appears that Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature have learned the very valuable lessons their counterparts in Michigan have taught us, and the important steps our government has since taken will help ensure the better health and quality of life for all of us that live in the Empire State.

Everyone involved, or thinking about becoming involved, in the cannabis business is aware of the conflict between the laws of those states legalizing marijuana and the Controlled Substance Act (the “CSA”).  The CSA is a federal law making it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense a controlled substance.  For purposes of the CSA, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance – making it illegal under federal law to be engaged in the marijuana business regardless of what state law provides.

The obvious consequence of this conflict of laws is the potential for federal prosecution for engaging in the marijuana business.  However, the not-so-obvious practical consequences reach further than you might think.  For example,

  • Taxes. Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, originally targeted for illegal drug dealers, prohibits cannabis businesses from deducting typical business expenses, such as advertising and rent.
  • Leases.  Most leases have covenants against “illegal activity,” which enables landlords to evict marijuana business tenants.  Moreover, many landlords are unwilling to rent to marijuana businesses, despite their legality under state law, for fear of losing their property in a federal civil asset forfeiture action.
  • Banking. In 2014 the Department of Treasury issued guidance for financial institutions that want to do business with the marijuana industry.  Up until that time, banks were reluctant to deal with the marijuana business due to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which requires banks to investigate their customers and to refrain from negligently or knowingly doing business with bad actors.  Today, banks are safe if they follow some pretty onerous rules.  Many banks choose not do business with the industry rather than comply with the diligence and monitoring requirements set forth by the Department of Treasury.
  • Commercial loans. Commercial loans are difficult to obtain without providing collateral; however, in a marijuana business, banks are not allowed to seize or possess the primary asset of a marijuana business – the marijuana – under federal law. Often a marijuana business will not have many other assets that are valuable enough to act as security for financing.
  • Trademarks. Because marijuana is illegal under the CSA, and because the United States Patent and Trademark Office will not register a mark if the applicant cannot show lawful use of the mark in commerce, it is nearly impossible to secure federal registration of a marijuana-related mark (although marks for ancillary products might be obtained).
  • Federal Water. Many areas in the western United States are served by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power to farmers.  The Bureau has advised that it will report to the Department of Justice any marijuana farmers who use federal water to irrigate their crops.
  • Bankruptcy. At least two courts have held that marijuana businesses cannot take advantage of federal bankruptcy laws.  The rationale is that, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, granting relief under another provision of federal law for the same activity would be “administering the fruits and instrumentalities of Federal criminal activity.”
  • Access to Federal Courts. If you enter into a contract with a marijuana business and need to sue in federal court, will you be able to?  This question has yet to be answered; however, if the prohibition against bankruptcy relief serves as guidance, the outcome is likely not favorable to marijuana businesses.

It is clear that federal law creates many obstacles to establishing and effectively managing a marijuana business.  Those in the industry should plan carefully and seek legal advice as to how to best mitigate the risks arising from the conflict between state and federal laws.

On November 1, 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a release concerning its issuance of warning letters to four companies concerning the marketing of products containing cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD is a cannabinoid found in hemp which lacks the psychoactive ingredient THC. Hemp and its derivatives are legal to import to the US and ship from state to state. According to a 2013 review published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, CBD may help in reducing nausea and vomiting; seizures; psychosis disorders; inflammatory disorders; tumor and cancer cells; and anxiety and depression disorders. CBD can be marketed in a variety of product types, such as oil drops, capsules, and topical lotions. CBD oil is legal in New York State.

The four companies that received warning letters from the FDA — Greenroads Health, Natural Alchemist, That’s Natural! Marketing and Consulting, and Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises LLC — are accused of illegally selling CBD products online that claim to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure cancer without evidence to support these outcomes. The FDA’s warning letters further provide that the four companies distributed the products with unsubstantiated claims regarding preventing, reversing or curing cancer; killing/inhibiting cancer cells or tumors; or other similar anti-cancer claims. Some of the products were also marketed as an alternative or additional treatment for Alzheimer’s and other serious diseases.

Examples of claims made by these companies include:

  • “CBD makes cancer cells commit ‘suicide’ without killing other cells”
  • “…considering the lack of risks associated with CBD it is an attractive alternative or addition to anyone’s treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.”
  • “Adding CBD oil as part of your daily Alzheimer’s medicine routine has a good chance at delaying the progression of the disease…”

“Substances that contain components of marijuana will be treated like any other products that make unproven claims to shrink cancer tumors. We don’t let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we’re not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “There are a growing number of effective therapies for many cancers. When people are allowed to illegally market agents that deliver no established benefit they may steer patients away from products that have proven, anti-tumor effects that could extend lives.”

Each company is being offered fifteen (15) working days after receipt of the warning letter to notify the FDA in writing of the specific steps that it has taken to correct the violations. The FDA letters warn that the company’s failure to correct the violations promptly may result in legal action, including product seizure and injunction.

False Claims Act whistleblowers expose themselves to significant risks by coming forward and asserting claims of fraud against the government. Often, the whistleblowers, called relators under the False Claims Act, would prefer to maintain their anonymity for personal or professional reasons, but their options to do so are limited.

A False Claims Act case is initially filed under seal, and remains under seal while the government investigates. However, once the government either intervenes in the action or declines to intervene, the seal is lifted, and the False Claims Act complaint is publicly filed. The complaint, and the identity of the relator, become public knowledge, even if the relator does not intend to go forward with the case.

In United States ex rel. Nash v. UCB, Inc., SDNY District Judge Thomas Griesa addressed a relator’s multi-pronged effort to remain unknown. The relator alleged that his former employer, UCB, Inc., had defrauded the federal government out of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds. The Government declined to intervene, however, and the relator intended to not proceed and to dismiss the action. The relator feared that his current employer might retaliate against him when it became known that he had filed an FCA case against his former employer. The relator sought to permanently maintain a seal on all documents in the case, or alternatively, to allow use of the pseudonym “John Doe” and to remove any information from the complaint that could reveal his identity.

The Court first noted the “firmly rooted” presumption of public access to judicial documents, which applies to pleadings such as a complaint. As to relator’s fear of retaliation, the Court did not find this risk to outweigh the presumption of public access to judicial documents. Moreover, the Court pointed to the False Claims Act retaliation provision, 31 USC § 3730(h), which protects a relator from discrimination or retaliation based on acts taken under the False Claims Act. The Court determined that this provision would protect against what it considered a “speculative fear” of employment retaliation. The Court denied the application to keep the case under seal.

Next, relator sought to have the complaint filed under a “John Doe” pseudonym, with the elimination of any identifying information. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), however, states that “The title of the complaint must name all the parties.” Courts have discretion to allow a pseudonym in special circumstances, where the need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to other parties and the public interest, but the bar is high. Factors courts consider include:

  • Highly sensitive and personal matters
  • Risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the party or innocent non-parties
  • Likely severity of alleged harms
  • Particular vulnerability of party to possible harms of disclosure
  • Whether challenge is to Government or private actions
  • Possible mitigation of prejudice by the Court

Judge Griesa found that the relator’s articulated need for anonymity was based on “attenuated and speculative risks of harm,” particularly where the concern was not with the former employer that the relator had sued, but with the current employer that he had not. The Court declined to allow a pseudonym, stating that the public “has a right to know who is using their courts.”

The Court did allow relator’s final request, that references to his current employer be redacted from the filed version of the complaint. The Court found the weight of presumption of public access to the identity of relator’s current employer to be low. Moreover, redactions would not affect the public interest, as the substance of the fraud allegations would be clear from the unredacted portions of the complaint.

Once a case is filed under the False Claims Act, the relator loses control over remaining anonymous. A resort to yet another lawsuit if there is retaliation may provide cold comfort, but the Courts are very reluctant to permit a relator to remain anonymous, even where the government has declined and the case will be dismissed.  Balancing this risk is one of the many considerations for relator and relator’s counsel in commencing a False Claims Act case.

The New York State Department of Labor (the “DOL”) issued an emergency regulation clarifying its minimum-wage rules regarding home care employees. The emergency regulation provides that sleep and meal times for home care aides who work shifts of 24 hours or more are not counted as hours worked. Recently, there has been a ringing dissonance between the DOL and decisions set forth by the New York State Appellate Divisions, First and Second Departments, regarding whether home care workers should be paid for an entire 24-hour shift, including sleep and meal time. In fact, the DOL expressly cited the fact that the emergency regulation is being promulgated in direct reaction to decisions issued by the New York State Appellate Divisions. For reference, the decisions triggering the emergency regulation are: Moreno v. Future Care Health Servs., Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6462 (2d Dept Sept. 13, 2017); (2d Dep’t Sept. 13, 2017); Andreyeyeva v. New York Health Care, Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6408 (2d Dep’t Sept. 13, 2017); and Tokhtaman v. Human Care, LLC, 149 A.D.3d 476 (1st Dep’t Apr. 11, 2017).

The above-referenced decisions effectively flipped the New York home care industry on its head, each holding, in sum, that home care workers were entitled to pay for all 24 hours worked, including sleep and meal time. Enter the DOL, on October 5, 2017, who quickly put any remaining ambiguity to rest once and for all stating “that hours worked may exclude meal periods and sleep times for home care aides who work shifts of 24 hours or more”. The DOL reasoned that “[t]his regulation is needed to preserve the status quo, prevent the collapse of the homecare industry, and avoid institutionalizing patients who could be cared for at home, in the face of recent decisions by the State Appellate divisions that treat meal periods and sleep time [as hours worked]”.

The emergency regulation is expected to return the home care industry back to normalcy and prevent home care agencies from ceasing to provide “vital, lifesaving care” to thousands of New Yorkers who depend on it. The DOL explained that this “emergency adoption amends the relevant regulations to codify the Commissioner’s longstanding and consistent interpretations that such meal periods and sleep times do not constitute hours worked for purposes of minimum wage and overtime requirements”. And so, the longstanding rule about sleeping on the job still stands: you won’t get paid for it in New York.

Note:  Special thanks to our law clerk, Nicholas G. Moneta, for his assistance in drafting this blog post.

In our previous post, Medical Marijuana 103: Patient and Practitioner Regulations in New York State, we discussed that patients certified for medical marijuana use can designate up to two caregivers. Caregivers can assist patients who are unable to pick up medical marijuana at a dispensing facility or are unable to administer medical marijuana to themselves properly.

Previously the Medical Marijuana Program only allowed for designated caregivers to be natural persons. On October 5, 2017, however, the New York State Department of Health (“DOH”) issued emergency regulations that expand the definition of caregiver to allow certain facilities to be designated caregivers. By expanding the definition in this way, patients who are located in or reside at certain facilities can designate their facility as their caregiver, thus making it easier for such patients to obtain medical marijuana.

The new regulations define a designated caregiver as either a natural person or a facility. The term “facility” is further defined as, among others, hospitals, adult day care facilities, community mental health residences, and private and public schools. In addition, each division, department, component, floor or other unit of a parent facility may be designated as a “facility” for purposes of being designated a caregiver.

Just like natural persons, facilities will need to register with the DOH in order to be designated a caregiver for purposes of the Medical Marijuana Program. Once registered with the DOH facilities will be authorized to lawfully possess, acquire, deliver, transfer, transport and/or administer medical marijuana to certified patients residing in, or attending, that facility.

The DOH considered alternatives prior to issuing the emergency regulations, stating:

The Department could have chosen to keep the status quo and not allow patients to designate facilities as designated caregivers. The Department could have also allowed certified patients to designate an individual within the facility to be a caregiver. However, these options are not viable since patients in facilities may be cared for by multiple staff members in the course of a day. Certified patients have severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions and the regulatory amendments would help to prevent adverse events associated with abrupt discontinuation of a treatment alternative that may be providing relief for certified patients in these facilities.”

The regulations were published in the New York State Register on October 25, 2017. The DOH will accept comments from the public for a minimum of 45 days following the date of publication. After publication in the Register and receipt of public comment, the agency may either adopt, revise or withdraw the proposal. This change is just one of the latest revisions implemented by the DOH in an attempt to strengthen and expand New York’s struggling Medical Marijuana Program.

Few, if any, in the medical industry are unfamiliar with the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”).  Under AKS, those giving or receiving compensation for referrals for items or services reimbursed by the federal healthcare programs are subject to criminal prosecution.  The statute is intended to prevent exploitation of the federal healthcare system, avoid unnecessary inflation of program costs and encourage fair competition in the industry.

AKS prohibits, among other things, the knowing and willful payment or receipt of any form of compensation to induce or reward referrals involving any item or service payable by federal healthcare programs.  “Federal healthcare programs” include more than just Medicare and Medicaid – “any plan or program providing health care benefits, whether directly through insurance or otherwise, that is funded directly, in whole or part, by the United States government (other than the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program), or any state health care program” is included.  This means that remuneration for referrals in connection with items and services that are reimbursable under TRICARE, the Veterans Administration, Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, and block grant programs are all subject to prosecution under AKS.

 

Where items or services are not reimbursable by a federal healthcare program, providers and referring parties are not subject to AKS prosecution.  However, due to an emerging trend in prosecution, the absence of reimbursement from federal healthcare programs should no longer leave providers and referral sources with a sense of security that they cannot be prosecuted for kickback arrangements.

 

Prosecutors are increasingly bringing charges against payers and recipients of remuneration for referrals in the medical arena under the Travel Act.  The Travel Act criminalizes the use of the United States mail and interstate or foreign travel for the purpose of engaging in certain specified criminal acts.  The Travel Act typically enforces two categories of state laws – laws prohibiting commercial bribery (i.e. corrupt dealings to secure an advantage over business competitors) and laws addressing illegal remuneration, including specific provisions regarding improper payments in connection with referral for services.

 

In two very recent high profile cases, prosecutors brought charges against those allegedly involved in kickback schemes under the both AKS and the Travel Act – Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services in New Jersey and Forest Park Medical Center in Texas.  Both cases have resulted in several plea bargains, yet both have charges under AKS and the Travel Act that are still pending.  While no court has directly ruled on the merits of prosecuting kickback schemes for medical services and items under the Travel Act, it is noteworthy that, in the Forest Park Medical Center case, the charges under the Travel Act survived a motion to dismiss at the district court level just last month.

 

All parties involved in referral arrangements for medical items or services should be on heightened alert as a result of this development.  Whereas AKS can only be used to prosecute parties to a kickback arrangement where federal healthcare program funds are at issue, the use of the Travel Act may broaden prosecutors’ reach to the private payor sector, even where federal healthcare programs are not involved.

Trypanophobia—the fear of needles—played a significant role in a case brought against Rite Aid Pharmacy under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., the Second Circuit overturned a jury verdict awarding substantial damages to a Rite Aid pharmacist who was terminated after he said he could not perform immunization injections because of a needle phobia.

In 2011, Rite Aid and other large pharmacy chains started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the healthcare market. Rite Aid revised its pharmacist job description to include immunizations as one of the essential duties and responsibilities for pharmacists and required that each pharmacist hold a valid immunization permit.

Pharmacist Christopher Stevens asserted that his needle phobia was a disability under the ADA and sought a reasonable accommodation so that he would not have to perform immunizations.  Rite Aid responded that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, no reasonable accommodation was required, and he would be fired if he did not complete immunization training. When Stevens advised Rite Aid he could not complete the training, he was terminated for refusing to perform customer immunizations, an essential function of his job.

The Second Circuit first noted that, under the ADA, an employee must be qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Even viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Stevens, the Court held that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists. The company made a business decision to require pharmacists to perform immunizations, revised its job description to require immunization certification and licensure, and included immunizations in the list of “essential duties and responsibilities” for Rite Aid pharmacists. The Court found jury sympathy for Stevens’s phobia to be understandable, but held that “his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence.”

The Court next determined that Stevens had not established that Rite Aid could have provided a reasonable accommodation, emphasizing that the issue was whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Stevens to perform the essential function of immunization, not whether he could perform his other non-immunization duties as a pharmacist.

The Second Circuit reversed the judgment in favor of Stevens, holding that performing immunization injections was an essential job requirement, and Stevens presented no evidence of a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to do them.

The Stevens case highlights two important points under the ADA. An employer’s written job description including the essential duties and responsibilities of a position can be strong evidence to support an ADA argument concerning the essential functions of the job. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation is directed to allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, not simply finding other things that the employee can do.

This blog post is the last in a series of articles discussing the current state of the law in New York regarding medical marijuana. To read the previous post in the series, Medical Marijuana 105: Marijuana in the Workplace, click here.

Despite its potential, New York’s Medical Marijuana Program is off to a slow start. The Program’s struggle is mostly due to the fact that it is one of the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the country. For example, medical marijuana offerings are limited to mostly liquids, oils and capsules and only state-certified marijuana patients are allowed to enter the limited number of dispensaries. In September 2017, the NYS Department of Health (“DOH”) announced that it would be issuing new regulations in an effort to bolster the Program. Under the new regulations, patients certified for medical marijuana use will have access to more types of products including lotions, tablets, lozenges, patches and more. In addition, prospective patients and practitioners interested in the medical marijuana program will be able to enter a dispensing facility to speak directly with representatives of registered organizations, learn about products, and get information about the medical marijuana program. The regulations will also allow doctors to take a shorter, two-hour program to become eligible to certify patients for medical marijuana use as opposed to the four-hour program that was originally required.

Since the Program’s inception the DOH has also attempted to expand the reach of the Program by adding new qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use. The addition of chronic pain as a qualifying condition, for example, led to a surge of patients seeking to become certified for medical marijuana use. The DOH announced in August 2017 that the number of certified patients increased by 10,744 (72%) since the addition of chronic pain in late March of this year.

Most recently efforts have been made to allow medical marijuana to be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Veterans groups in particular have urged Governor Cuomo to allow those with PTSD to use medical marijuana. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about eight million adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, including tens of thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Somewhere between 11% and 20% of those vets will suffer from it each year. Over 23 states allow medical marijuana use to treat PTSD, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It seems likely, especially given New York’s penchant for growing the Program, that Governor Cuomo will pass the bill adding PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use.

The DOH is hoping that all of these changes will bolster the Program. That would be welcome news to New York’s registered organizations which are authorized to manufacture and dispense of medical marijuana in New York State. You may recall from our previous article in this series that on August 1, 2017, the DOH announced the licensure of five new companies to act as registered organizations. In April 2017, however, knowing that the DOH was planning to take such action, the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association sued New York State on behalf of New York’s original registered organizations. The lawsuit aims to stop the DOH from issuing the new licenses and alleges that increasing the number of registered organizations from five to ten will harm the industry because there is not enough demand to meet supply. “The program is still in its infancy, and patient demand is currently too low to support an expansion of the supply market for medical marijuana,” the lawsuit states. “As it is, all five of [the original registered organizations] are sustaining tremendous operating losses, after having made millions of dollars in initial investments.” The five newly-awarded registered organizations filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit but the Court denied the motion last week. We will continue to monitor the litigation and post updates to the New York Health Law Blog as developments occur.

Thank you for being a part of this series discussing the current state of the law in New York regarding medical marijuana. The medical marijuana field is constantly changing as the program in New York grows and evolves. To stay up to date on all of the developments we invite you to subscribe to the Farrell Fritz New York Health Law Blog.