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Eye On Boise

As lawmakers debate health budgets, trial for Idaho kids with marijuana-derived drug called a success

Idaho lawmakers have just finished a full week of hearings on health and human services budgets, and while major changes and initiatives are underway in some areas, there was little talk about how to close the state’s health coverage gap; you can read my full Sunday column here. Among the news that emerged from the week of hearings: Gov. Butch Otter’s 2015 executive order authorizing a “compassionate use” program for up to 25 Idaho children with a severe, intractable form of epilepsy to be treated with a new British drug, Epidiolex, that’s non-psychoactive but derived from marijuana, has been a success. Of the 25 slots, all were filled, but one child had to withdraw for lack of ability to withstand needed blood draws.

Now, the Department of Health and Welfare is requesting state funding to expand the program to another 15 children, for a total of 39 kids. Under questioning by members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Elke Shaw-Tulloch, director of the department’s Division of Public Health, said that would serve all Idaho children currently on the waiting list for the program.

“The program is being conducted in concert, on a national basis, with a clinical trial,” Shaw-Tulloch told lawmakers, but under the “compassionate use” program, all Idaho kids in the program receive the real drug, not a placebo. “We are seeing some great progress,” she said, and the manufacturer is reporting strong results in its national trial.

Epidiolex, which the manufacturer is providing to the program for free, is not yet commercially available, but is expected to win FDA approval within one to two years.

Gov. Butch Otter is recommending approval of $128,600 in state funds for the program expansion. He issued the executive order authorizing the limited program after vetoing legislation in 2015 that would have allowed Idaho parents of children with intractable epilepsy to treat their children legally with CBD oil, a marijuana-derived oil.

On the health coverage gap, several bills likely will be introduced in the next week to tap the state’s Millennium Fund, which comes from a nationwide tobacco settlement, to fund some type of primary care for Idahoans in the gap. But those funds already are committed to other programs including smoking cessation and prevention programs.

Meanwhile, Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers that his department’s top budget priority this year is a redesign of the children’s mental health program.  He also highlighted a proposal to increase stipends to foster parents in Idaho by 20 percent, to address a shortage of foster families for children in need; to provide mental health treatment to high-risk felony probationers and parolees; and funding for a secure mental health facility. “These are all tied together,” Armstrong said.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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