HELENA — An advocacy group is defying the state medical board's ban on using video teleconferences to examine people seeking medical marijuana cards, saying the medium is necessary for people who don't have access to a doctor.
The Missoula-based Montana Caregivers Network connects doctors with would-be patients by using the Internet video service Skype in what the advocacy group calls TeleClinics.
The state Board of Medical Examiners ruled in November that those examinations alone do not meet standards of care for certifying medical marijuana patients.
But the Montana Caregivers Network, which shut down its mass patient screenings last year after the board warned that participating physicians must make full patient examinations, is taking a stand against halting the video examinations.
"The Board's position does not equate to law," the group wrote in its newsletter released Wednesday. "The TeleClinic service is vital in keeping medical marijuana accessible for patients in rural areas who cannot find a physician in their limited communities."
The advocacy group, through the video conferences and mass screenings, has been one of the main organizations driving Montana's boom in medical marijuana.
There were 27,292 medical marijuana patients registered with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services as of December. That's compared to 7,339 registered patients in December 2009.
To be a registered medical marijuana patient in Montana, a person must submit an application to the state health department, along with a doctor's certification that they have a debilitating medical condition.
Montana Caregivers Network founder Jason Christ has said the video conferences are necessary not just for rural residents, but for people in chronic pain not able to visit a doctor. Also, relatively few doctors are willing to provide the certifications for medical marijuana use.
The group advertises the video exams on its website: "Got a computer? You can visit the Doctor, online, and get your green card. Doctors are available all day long, every day!"
The Board of Medical Examiners licenses health-care professionals and regulates their practices and it can discipline doctors found to be providing substandard care.
The board concluded in November that physicians must conduct a "hands-on" assessment when certifying patients as eligible for the medical marijuana registry — and the video conferences don't cut it.
"The exclusive use of teleconference methods to certify individuals does not meet this level of standard of care," the board wrote.
The board's ruling was included as an addendum to a May position paper aimed at curtailing the mass patient screenings the Montana Caregivers Network were holding across the state.
The board told physicians participating in those traveling clinics that they must apply the same standards in prescribing marijuana that they use in prescribing other medication: perform thorough examinations, take medical histories, discuss alternative treatments and monitor the patents' response.
The board fined one doctor for participating in a traveling clinic, saying she saw a new patient every six minutes on average, which is nowhere near enough time to provide appropriate care.
Jean Branscum, the board's executive director, and board member Dean Center did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Ardyce Taylor of the Montana Caregivers Network referred questions to Christ, who also did not return calls.