The state Department of Health was in the hot seat at an interim legislative committee meeting—despite the fact no one from the department was actually in the room.
The interim Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee met with a number of people involved with the state’s medical cannabis program. The topic of discussion was the renewal and issuance of patient cards.
No representative from DOH showed up, even though the department oversees the program.
The committee’s vice chair, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, expressed her concern that DOH was unable to send anyone to speak about the delays many patients are seeing when applying for medical cannabis cards.
“I almost begged for someone knowledgeable,” Rodriguez said before she introduced the panel.
The remainder of the meeting focused on the disappointments from providers, patient advocates and lawmakers.
“I’m extremely disappointed to say the least,” Rodriguez said.
Duke Rodriguez, no relation to the chairwoman, of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, didn’t hold back when expressing his “disgust” with the delays by DOH issuing patient cards.
Patients are not receiving the cards that allow them to legally have cannabis for medical reasons in the 30 days required by law. Some patients have had to wait much longer than that mandated deadline.
“These aren’t issues about cards these are about issues with patients,” Duke Rodriguez told legislators.
Nicole Morales, executive director of the patient advocacy group Empowering Medical Patients and Compassionate Treatment (E.M.P.A.C.T.), told legislators the flawed process at DOH led to patients failing to get medication.
“The solution has got to be brought to the table sooner [rather] than later,” Morales said.
State Auditor Tim Keller said DOH is also a threat to be sued, because the state did not provide the cards in time.
“All of a sudden the state’s going to be on the hook for massive payouts,” Keller said.
Keller stressed that patients not receiving cards presents the state with a “public health emergency” and the DOH is not taking it seriously.
“They are sort of, at best, treating it as a bureaucratic challenge,” Keller said.
Keller compared the DOH actions to the actions taken by the Human Services Department when there was a perceived emergency with the state’s behavioral health system. HSD shut down funding to over a dozen behavioral health providers for ‘credible allegations of fraud’ involving Medicaid funds.
All fifteen providers found themselves cleared by the state Attorney General.
“Here is a sharp contrast, it’s as if it’s a slow sweep under the rug,” Keller said of the DOH’s actions.
After the meeting Keller told NM Political Report that sometimes department heads will not show up for legislative meetings if there is a perceived partisan agenda but not when there is so much at stake.
“You never see this when it’s a public health crisis,” Keller said.
Keller added that DOH being absent from the meeting was an “extreme disappointment and totally inappropriate.”
Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, added her disapproval of the department. The law allowing medical marijuana in New Mexico, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, was named partially after Armstrong’s daughter Erin. Rep. Armstrong is also the former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
“As a cabinet secretary, I would have been tossed out if I would have ignored and blown off the Legislature,” Armstrong said.
Chairwoman Rodriguez said a member of DOH would be scheduled at the next meeting and they would be prepared with questions and concerns so there would be “no excuse” for them to not come prepared with answers.