Beshear and Senate president discuss medical marijuana, hero pay; Stivers says PBM bill stuck in Senate over cost concerns

Senate President Robert Stivers

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT — State Senate President Robert Stivers said he favors funding more research on medical marijuana before making it legal in Kentucky, but Gov. Andy Beshear says medical cannabis has overwhelming support in the state and should pass when the legislature returns to reconsider vetoed bills.

At separate press conferences in Frankfort Thursday, the two leaders also discussed the Republican legislature’s rejection of the Democratic governor’s plan to give Kentuckians who worked throughout the pandemic a “hero bonus;” and Stivers said a House bill to rein in pharmacy benefit managers died in the Senate for fear it would raise consumers’ and employers’ costs.

Medical marijuana: Stivers said the House-passed cannabis bill “would be difficult” to pass the Senate next week, but he supports a bill by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, to create a cannabis research center at the University of Kentucky and expects it to pass. “I think it not only would be good locally but nationally and internationally to understand the medicinal and therapeutic values of marijuana,” he said.

Stivers acknowledged that studies show cannabis helps with certain medical conditions, “but every study I’ve read said the sample sizes have been too small, the duration is too long and therefore more study is needed.”

Moser’s House Bill 604 has had two of its three required readings, so it could clear the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee and the full Senate quickly on April 13 and/or 14.

Beshear urged the legislature to pass the medical-cannabis bill in those two remaining days, which would require suspension of the three-readings rule. “Its time has certainly come.”

He added, “Kentuckians deserve the passage of a medical-marijuana bill. They overwhelmingly support it. When 70-plus percent of a state is in favor of something, it’s time for the General Assembly to step up and do something about it. Represent the people.”

Asked later if he could do anything by executive order to make it easier for people with certain conditions to have access to medical cannabis, Behsear said, “We’re going to explore that. . . . I am for medical marijuana and I will continue to push it until we make it a reality.”

The House passed its cannabis bill, HB 136, by a vote of 59-35, with just over half of the Republicans who voted on the bill favoring it. A similar bill passed the House in 2020 but died in the Senate.

Pharmacy benefit managers: House Bill 457 would ensure that patients could pick their pharmacy, instead of being required to use one affiliated with a pharmacy benefit manager; increase transparency between insurers and PBMs; and ban PBMs from retroactively denying a pharmacy claim after adjudication, commonly referred to as “clawing back.” It passed the House 88-3.

Asked why the bill didn’t gain any traction in the Senate after such overwhelming support in the House, Stivers said, “When it got here, we started getting, from business sector and provider sector, various questions and comments about what the overall cost would be to various plans.”

The bill was opposed by one of the session’s heaviest lobbying campaigns. The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, the PBM trade group, spent $38,369 to get its message to lawmakers before March, when it ran television commercials urging voters to ask their legislators to defeat it.

Stivers said it had been assigned to the Appropriations and Revenue Committee “because it has potential fiscal impact — local, individual, personal and state fiscal impact.” He indicated that the bill would not pass, since that would require suspension of the three-readings rule, and more education would be needed among Republican senators about what it would do.

Hero bonuses: Stivers said the General Assembly took a different approach to hero bonuses that he said would benefit everybody, mainly because it was too hard to determine just who would qualify for bonuses. He said the legislature is giving income-tax reductions and workforce incentives, and investing in  infrastructure and higher education.

Gov. Andy Beshear

Beshear disagreed, reflecting on how scary it was early in the pandemic when the mortality rate from the virus was 10 percent in some places and essential workers were asked to show up at work every day.

“I believe this legislature needs to spend some of the last two days including hero bonuses. They deserve those hero bonuses. . . . I think it’s really disappointing.”

Health bills become law: Beshear signed three more health-related bills into law Thursday.

House Bill 525, sponsored by Moser, would allow Medicaid to pay certified community health workers. CHWs aren’t trained medically, but are trained as patient advocates who come from the communities they serve. They help clients coordinate care, provide access to medical, social and environmental services, work to improve health literacy, and deliver education on prevention and disease self-management.

Senate Bill 10, sponsored by Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, addresses the nursing shortage with both short-term and long-term solutions, including streamlining the process for out-of-state and foreign trained nurses to practice in Kentucky without compromising the standards of care; improving access to nursing education by removing “arbitrary” enrollment limits without compromising the quality of the programs; and adding term limits and geographic requirements for the Board of Nursing.

Senate Bill 105, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, will increase awareness and screenings for the cytomegalovirus (CMV), a virus that can cause childhood deafness and other health conditions. Most CMV infections are not diagnosed without newborn screening, resulting in missed opportunities for needed care. It is titled Bella Dawn Streeval’s Law, after a woman who died two years ago Thursday after suffering from CMV.

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