Pa­tients de­cry med­i­cal pot card back­log

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Ali­cia Wal­lace

Colorado’s Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Reg­istry is in the thick of a six- to eight-week back­log for mailed ap­pli­ca­tions for med­i­cal cannabis cards, af­fect­ing thou­sands of pa­tients.

As of Thurs­day, the of­fice was pro­cess­ing ap­pli­ca­tions re­ceived by mail on Jan. 31, 2017. More than 6,000 pieces of mail re­main in the hop­per — in­clud­ing the 4,178 pieces of mail that ar­rived in Fe­bru­ary.

As the state switches to an on­line ap­pli­ca­tion sys­tem, what amounts to a heavy work­load for the reg­istry’s lim­ited pro­cess­ing crew is caus­ing frus­tra­tion among some within the state’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana com­mu­nity.

“They can’t seem to get their act to­gether in re­new­ing peo­ple’s sta­tuses,” said Rob Ca­gen, 70, of Fort Collins, whose med­i­cal mar­i­juana card ex­pired this week. “It seems crazy.”

The mailed ap­pli­ca­tion wait times, which typ­i­cally have been 20 to 30 days, have spiked as a re­sult of Jan­uary’s de­but of the on­line reg­istry. And pa­tients such as Ca­gen, who was un­able to reg­is­ter on­line, are hav­ing to wait as long as two months for their card.

“That’s a mas­sive amount of time to wait for your doc­tor-rec­om­mended medicine,” said Brian Vi­cente, a part­ner with Vi­cente Seder­berg, a law firm spe­cial­iz­ing in cannabis reg­u­la­tions. Vi­cente also is a di­rec­tor of Sen­si­ble Colorado, a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tient advocacy group.

A key card­holder com­plaint: Med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tients can com­plete the on­line ap­pli­ca­tion process only if their rec­om­mend­ing physi­cian has ap­plied on­line as well. State of­fi­cials con­firmed this is the case, cit­ing the re­quire­ment is a func­tion of the site.

Care­givers who grow plants for pa­tients also are re­quired to be reg­is­tered on­line be­fore a pa­tient can list them in their ap­plica-

tion.

As of this week, 66 physi­cians were reg­is­tered on­line.

An es­ti­mated 600 physi­cians in the state rec­om­mend med­i­cal mar­i­juana, state of­fi­cials say.

Ca­gen, whose doc­tor had dif­fi­cult ac­cess­ing the site ini­tially, mailed in his ap­pli­ca­tion this week and plans to wait it out.

“I’m in a way bet­ter sit­u­a­tion than, I’m sure, a lot of other peo­ple are,” Ca­gen said.

The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is tem­po­rary, said Natalie Rig­gins, di­rec­tor of the Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Reg­istry.

Two years in the mak­ing, the new on­line site is de­signed to be more ro­bust, se­cure and ex­pe­di­tious — pa­tients are re­ceiv­ing cards two to three days af­ter ap­ply­ing on­line.

As of Tues­day, the reg­istry had 21,176 pa­tients ac­tive on the on­line sys­tem, rep­re­sent­ing roughly 20 per­cent of the to­tal reg­istry, Rig­gins said. And dur­ing the past week­end, the 500 peo­ple who sub­mit­ted ap­pli­ca­tions on­line re­ceived their cards by Mon­day.

A sig­nif­i­cant bar­rier to clear­ing the back­log has been wran­gling the vol­ume of calls and e-mails in ad­di­tion to the ap­pli­ca­tions, Rig­gins said.

The of­fice has some ad­vice for pa­tients: The ma­jor­ity of the phone and e-mail queries are ad­dressed on the reg­istry’s web­site, Rig­gins said, ad­ding that it’s highly rec­om­mended that peo­ple check the “fre­quently asked ques­tions” page be­fore call­ing or email­ing the of­fice.

“Once they get ac­cli­mated, that mail vol­ume will drop and this sys­tem will al­low for a much smoother process and will al­low us to be much more ef­fi­cient with how we process (ap­pli­ca­tions),” she said.

For pa­tients whose cards are up for re­newal soon, ac­cord­ing to the FAQ , “Ex­ist­ing pa­tients should wait to reg­is­ter in the new sys­tem un­til it is time to re­new their an­nual med­i­cal mar­i­juana card up to 30 days prior to your card ex­pir­ing.”

In Jan­uary, the reg­istry of­fice re­ceived 11,538 to­tal re­quests, of which 7,868 were pieces of mail and the re­main­der were e-mails, on­line sub­mis­sions and phone calls re­quir­ing res­o­lu­tion be­yond what the call cen­ter could pro­vide, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by Mariah LaRue, spokes­woman for the med­i­cal mar­i­juana reg­istry.

In Fe­bru­ary the of­fice re­ceived 13,227 re­quests, of which 4,178 were pieces of mail, LaRue said.

“Look­ing at our up­com­ing mail vol­ume, we’re pretty con­fi­dent that by next month at this time, if not by the end of this month, we will be back to a 35-day turn­around by mail,” Rig­gins said.

The state of­fice that pro­cesses those ap­pli­ca­tions has staffed up to in­put the pa­per ap­pli­ca­tions into the new sys­tem, man­age what comes in elec­tron­i­cally and an­swer the surge of queries about the process, Rig­gins said. The depart­ment re­cently hired five tem­po­rary em­ploy­ees, bring­ing its cur­rent pro­cess­ing staff to 12, and has plans to hire more.

The of­fice’s budget, how­ever, is lim­ited.

“The reg­istry is a cash rev­enue pro­gram, and the only source of fund­ing is the $15 ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cess­ing fee,” LaRue said via e-mail. “We do not re­ceive any leg­isla­tive fund­ing or taxbased fund­ing. The pro­gram is sus­tained strictly off of the rev­enue brought in by the $15 ap­pli­ca­tion fee.

“Like all fee-based pro­grams in Colorado, we are self-sus­tain­ing based on our fee rev­enue.”

Year-to-date, the reg­istry’s rev­enue to­taled $953,499 for the fis­cal year that ends on June 30. Ex­pen­di­tures were just less than $1.2 mil­lion, LaRue said.

Pa­tients will be able to sub­mit pa­per ap­pli­ca­tions through the end of the year; the reg­istry moves fully on­line in 2018.

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