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HARRISBURG — An unofficial online directory of physicians who can approve patients for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania has been used by a competitor to direct people to its business, drawing complaints and calling US health department officials State to intervene.
“This is a fraud and unfair to doctors and patients,” wrote Kimberlee Williams Park, a Delaware County doctor who participates in the medical cannabis program, in a complaint filed in May with the attorney general’s office. ‘State. “It disrupts continuity of care and is pure greed.”
A complaint by Park and at least one other doctor to the Department of Health prompted the agency to notify doctors in the state’s medical cannabis program on May 27 about the website, Medical Marijuana doctorsrx, and of the Sanctuary Wellness Institute, a medical marijuana card company.
The department wrote that “the majority of licensed practitioners who participate in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program” were advertised in the unofficial directory.
“You will notice on the website that the same phone number is listed for each practitioner, and that phone number leads to answering calls by the Sanctuary Wellness Institute,” the department wrote in an email obtained by Spotlight PA.
The dispute between doctors and marijuana card websites highlights a bigger problem in Pennsylvania: Companies like The Sanctuary Wellness Institute can advertise their services here with impunity, while doctors like Park don’t. right to do the same.
The Department of Health’s public list of licensed medical cannabis physicians does not include information such as phone numbers, email addresses, or websites. This has allowed unofficial directory websites to thrive, said Bucks County physician Jennifer Minkovich.
Meanwhile, the law currently prohibits doctors from advertising that they can approve patients for the program, which limits how people can find them.
“If the DOH has interpreted the law to mean that physicians cannot even identify themselves as ‘certifying physicians’ on their own firm’s website because it is considered ‘advertising’, then no site Outside web should not be able to advertise a doctor’s name in any way, much less without the doctor’s consent,” Minkovich wrote in an email.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said Wednesday the agency needed more time to answer questions. John DiBella, who described himself as the sole owner of the Sanctuary Wellness Institute and the creator of Medical Marijuana Doctorsrx, said he took immediate action following a May 27 email sent by state officials.
DiBella told Spotlight PA “our developer made the mistake of adding our phone number as the default number” on the directory pages under doctors’ physical addresses.
“He was not instructed to do this and we had no idea he had,” DiBella wrote.
State policies and practices have given medical marijuana card companies a clear advantage in the race to attract millions of dollars in revenue from medical marijuana patients.
Not only can they advertise; some companies offer Groupon discounts, dominate Google search results, and offer money-back guarantees if patients are not approved.
A previous Spotlight PA investigation found that some certifying companies made inaccurate or misleading medical claims to lure customers, and the Department of Health said it had no regulatory oversight over those companies.
But the agency has issued about a dozen warning letters to doctors for alleged advertising violations, including threatening a doctor’s medical license. Most of the alleged violations related to information describing basic services or referrals on a website for a doctor or practice.
Even the recent Department of Health email to doctors informing them of the existence of Doctorsrx on medical marijuana puts the onus of enforcement on doctors — not the company that runs the website. The department urged doctors to check the website “to make sure you are not listed and inaccurate information has not been published”.
The operators of Medical Marijuana Doctorsrx recently updated the website. But Montgomery County physician Sara Abbruzzi told Spotlight PA the changes didn’t go far enough, calling the tactic a “total bait and switch” for patients.
“It’s upsetting for those of us who play by the rules,” Abbruzzi said. “These big companies are sort of sweeping in.”
DiBella’s company, The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, offers to connect people with a doctor so they can get a medical marijuana card. These cards allow people to buy cannabis at dispensaries in Pennsylvania.
DiBella said he also created Medical Marijuana Doctorsrx, a website that offers to help patients find “qualified doctors near them.” He spoke to a reporter in early May, before the health department issued the warning to doctors about his business.
The Sanctuary Wellness Institute and Medical Marijuana doctorrx are listed as clients of Netlocal, a search engine optimization company that names DiBella as owner and founder.
Medical Marijuana doctorsrx offers doctors the option to pay $249 per month for a “well-designed SEO landing page” on the directory website and other services. But the site also lists doctors who didn’t pay or didn’t even know about the site.
In early May, DiBella told Spotlight PA that when people contact the website looking for medical marijuana cards, his certification company, The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, follows up.
“It’s increasingly becoming another advertising channel for The Sanctuary,” he said of Medical Marijuana doctorsrx.
DiBella said the website relies on public information to create a list of doctors. And while it’s become a marketing tool for his business, he said the directory website could help patients connect with other doctors, not just the Sanctuary Wellness Institute.
“In a way, it’s like this free service that’s provided to doctors,” DiBella told Spotlight PA in early May.
Several doctors told Spotlight PA they don’t see it that way.
“These big companies that are run by non-clinical people … are basically trying to falsely entice patients into their business,” Abbruzzi told Spotlight PA. “And I think it’s a shame the Department of Health isn’t doing more.”
As of June 1, a search for Medical Marijuana doctorsrx for Pennsylvania doctors returned 28 pages of results on the site. Almost every page listed over 40 doctors.
The directory still included doctors’ names and addresses, but not phone numbers. A disclaimer on the “Contact Us” page stated that the website “is not affiliated with any physicians listed on this website”, but did not go into detail.
Individual profile pages included a note at the bottom, telling doctors to contact the company if they wanted to be removed from the website.
DiBella told Spotlight PA that the company offered to update doctors’ profile pages with whatever information they wanted for free as a “show of goodwill.”
Some doctors, like Park, the Delaware County doctor, aren’t interested in the offer.
“No way,” she wrote in a text message to Spotlight PA.
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