Court orders Pa. health department to release doctor data for medical marijuana certifications
A Commonwealth Court judge has ordered Pennsylvania’s health department to release information about medical marijuana certifications issued by individual doctors, likely bringing a conclusion to an open records dispute in which the agency sued Spotlight PA in an attempt to keep the information secret.
The information could help identify outliers who might be bending or breaking the state’s rules. It could also give greater insight into cases when the department attempts to discipline doctors.
The judge on Nov. 8 reached the decision to require the health department to release the data, after the department and Spotlight PA participated in a court mediation program. The latest action follows a 2022 court decision ordering the health department to release aggregate data showing the reasons why hundreds of thousands of patients qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program.
“We are pleased with the outcome of this case,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who represented Spotlight PA in the doctor data cases. “Public information belongs to the public, and this sets an important precedent in favor of access under the Medical Marijuana Act.”
“This data adds meaningful and necessary context to reporting on Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, and paints a fuller picture of how it is serving the people in our state,” she added.
The medical marijuana program has about 1,900 approved practitioners who can issue certifications to patients, according to recent health department data.
A series of investigative stories from Spotlight PA in 2022 and earlier this year revealed serious flaws in the state’s medical marijuana program, finding that some companies used misleading or dangerous tactics to promote cannabis as an opioid addiction treatment and that unequal advertising rules give an advantage to largely unregulated companies over individual doctors.
An investigation published in January — based on a court victory and an unprecedented analysis of more than 1.1 million medical marijuana certifications — showed how the decision to add anxiety disorders as a qualifying condition transformed the program.
The recent cases over doctor certification data go back more than a year, when Spotlight PA in October 2022 submitted two separate requests to the health department under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.
In one request, the news organization asked for data dealing with the number of medical marijuana certifications issued by a specific doctor who faced discipline from the health department. In another request, Spotlight PA sought similar data for all practitioners in the program, and the news organization specifically noted it wasn’t seeking names of patients.
In both cases, the Department of Health denied the request, and department officials argued the state’s medical marijuana law prohibited them from releasing the records.
But the state Office of Open Records — an independent state agency that settles open records disputes involving many Pennsylvania public agencies — ruled in Spotlight PA’s favor on appeal, saying that records showing the number certifications issued by doctors did not involve individual patient data and weren’t covered by the medical marijuana law’s confidentiality restrictions.
The health department appealed to the Commonwealth Court, and the two separate cases involving doctor data were later consolidated. In issuing the order to release the data earlier this month, President Judge Emerita Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter cited the parties’ submissions as part of the mediation program and the existing court precedent involving qualifying conditions for the medical marijuana program.
Mark O’Neill, press secretary for the Department of Health, said the agency was pleased an agreement could be reached through the court’s mediation program.
“Patient confidentiality has always been a top priority of the Department,” O’Neill wrote in an email, “and we appreciate the Court clearly defining the scope of information that can be released to the public and specifically clarifying that the Medical Marijuana Act’s confidentiality provision should be interpreted to apply to patient-specific information.”
On Nov. 20, an attorney for the health department provided Spotlight PA with a database that included the names of about 2,000 practitioners, along with the number of certifications they each issued, broken down by year. The news organization is currently analyzing the records, which go back to 2017.
Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, called the outcome in the doctor data cases “another win for Pennsylvanians.” Spotlight PA is a member of the association.
“It means we have access to information that helps us understand how the Medical Marijuana Act is being applied by government agencies,” Melewsky said. “And that’s an important part of understanding the law and holding the Department of Health accountable.”
After Spotlight PA won access to qualifying condition data last year, the health department shared it with the news organization and later with academic researchers across the state. During the state’s most recent Medical Marijuana Advisory Board meeting, a health department official described plans to publicly post similar aggregate data about qualifying conditions.
“We’re all behind the transparency and the data sharing,” Laura Mentch, director of the state's Office of Medical Marijuana, told the board. “It’s definitely one of our top goals.”
90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.