After hearing a litany of complaints from lawmakers, state health officials are moving forward with a contested contract to process medical-marijuana patient identification cards.
State Surgeon General Celeste Philip signed a contract with Jacksonville-based Veritec LLC on Wednesday, citing emergency powers “to avoid an immediate and serious danger to public health.”
Patients have complained about months-long delays in getting the cards, which are required before they can purchase marijuana products from state-sanctioned dispensaries after doctors order the treatment. Lawmakers have publicly questioned state pot czar Christian Bax about the hold-ups, which he blamed on his office's inability to move forward with the outsourcing of the ID cards.
After the Department of Health announced its intent to grant the $7.4 million contract to Veritec, losing bidder Automated Health Solutions — which bid about $9.3 million — immediately said it would protest the decision.
The protest threatened to delay for months the outsourcing of the ID cards — ordered by lawmakers in a sweeping bill passed in June. That bill was intended to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.
Under Philip's order, the outsourcing will begin while the administrative challenge moves forward. Along with serving as surgeon general, Philip is secretary of the Florida Department of Health, which is in charge of carrying out medical-marijuana laws.
“We have heard the concerns of patients, caregivers and the Legislature and have determined that expediting the OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) identification card program is necessary to ensure timely access for patients. The rate of growth of this program has proven that we cannot wait for an ITN (Invitation to Negotiate) protest without impacting patients currently suffering from qualifying medical conditions,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email.
In a memo Wednesday about the signing of the contract with Veritec, Philip said the Office of Medical Marijuana Use has printed more than 29,000 patient and caregiver cards. But the health department expects an exponential rise in the number of patients — to between 300,000 and 500,000 — over the next two years.
The number of new patients added daily has nearly tripled since March, from 90 to 264, according to Philip.
And because lawmakers ordered the outsourcing of the ID cards, Bax's office lacks the staff to address the task, Philip said.
“The card application program is extremely resource-intensive, and further continued diversion of OMMU personnel to serve the needs of the card program will negatively impact OMMU's core regulatory functions,” she wrote.
Nearly all of the 17 full-time employees and 18 temporary workers hired by Bax are devoted to dealing with the cards either full-time or part time, according to Philip.
She said the office won't be able to process applications and print cards in a timely manner once the number of patients added to a state registry reaches 350 per day, which Philip said will occur within the next two months. The work overload will result in delays of up to three months before patients get their cards, she said.
“Moving forward with a vendor for the card program and call center will benefit patients, caregivers, and the department,” she wrote.
The outsourcing of the ID cards will allow Bax's staff “to concentrate on their core functions,” such as regulating medical marijuana treatment centers, working with physicians and facilitating patient access, Philips wrote in the memo.
The ID cards are just one of a series of challenges in Florida's medical marijuana arena.
The state is also dealing with several lawsuits. One challenge focuses on a law banning medical marijuana from being smoked. Another challenges a ban on “home grows.” A separate lawsuit is challenging portions of the June law that set aside a medical marijuana license for a black farmer who meets certain requirements. And a fourth is centered on a preference in the law for up to two applicants from the citrus industry.