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Guv won't say why office hires private law firms

Plus, medical marijuana board pushes health department for details on doctor oversight.


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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

December 8, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Legal bills, LGBTQ protections, control crisis, rural upkeep, Penn State planes, doctor oversight, Smith subpoenas, pardon picks, mail check, and web map.

Gov. Tom Wolf entered office eight years ago as a champion of government transparency. But when it comes to his office’s legal bills, the outgoing Democratic governor is all talk and little substance.

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Brad Bumsted of The Caucus report that Wolf's Office of General Counsel — which refers to itself as “Pennsylvania’s Law Firm” — shields basic information about why it spends tens of thousands of dollars annually to hire private law firms.

In fact, over the past year, Wolf’s administration has actively blocked efforts by the news organizations to publicly release those details.

Also this week, a state panel approved a regulatory change to formalize nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, Stephen Caruso reports. 

Caruso also has the latest on the battle for control of the Pennsylvania House

Democrats say they are now in control of the chamber after their top leader had herself sworn in a month before the new legislative session begins in order to schedule three critical special elections. Republicans are crying foul.

» Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism keeps Harrisburg honest, but it can't continue without your support. Don't miss your chance to make a tax-deductible end-of-year gift now and get 3X the impact with our dollar-for-dollar match.


"When it comes to liberty and justice for all, where we founded our government, we’re going to lead."

—Tyler Titus, a former Erie school board member, on the need for Pennsylvania to pass a bill codifying nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people

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» Almost 90% of rural Pennsylvania municipalities lack property upkeep rules
» How often are Penn State’s private planes flying during a budget crunch?

Pa. medical marijuana board pushes health department for details on doctor oversight

Members of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board are publicly questioning the Wolf administration’s oversight of doctors and third-party certification companies, concerns that echo the findings of a yearlong Spotlight PA investigation into the state’s program.

During the most recent advisory board meeting in November, health department officials faced questions about advertising by medical marijuana businesses and the rigor of telemedicine appointments for certifications.

Daniel Kambic, a physician and board member, referred to the current situation as “a little sloppy,” although it wasn’t clear whether he was specifically referring to certifications themselves, the department’s oversight, or both. “I think we need to tighten it up a little bit,” Kambic said.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of patients must receive approval from a physician if they want to legally use cannabis in the state. Some patients connect to these physicians through largely unregulated third-party companies. Spotlight PA’s reporting revealed that some of these businesses make misleading or incorrect medical claims, benefit from unequal advertising rules, and allegedly tie a doctor’s payment to patient approvals.

Department of Health officials have repeatedly insisted the agency doesn’t have oversight of third-party companies that help patients schedule appointments with doctors. But they’ve also provided few details about how the department ensures that the state’s more than 1,800 approved physicians review a patient’s available medical records and provide appropriate consultations. 

Denise Johnson, the state’s physician general and acting health secretary, told board members the department would provide more details before the next meeting. But she emphasized the importance of patient complaints.

“We’re not able to oversee every situation, and so we do need to get those specific reports,” she said.

It’s rare for the department to formally discipline a doctor over potential violations of the state’s medical marijuana rules. The health department recently accepted a recommendation to briefly suspend a practitioner’s ability to issue certifications after a patient complained that the doctor did not review her medical records during a telehealth appointment. That discipline case was not finalized as of early November.

When Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature first legalized medical marijuana in 2016, they specifically required doctors to meet with patients in person to approve them for medical marijuana. But the Department of Health waived the in-person requirements at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and Wolf and the legislature changed state law in 2021 to permanently allow for telehealth appointments.

At one point during the meeting, board member Diana Briggs noted that she and her son recently received certifications through telemedicine appointments and needed to provide records of their diagnoses for qualifying conditions.  

But another board member, I. William Goldfarb, suggested that Briggs’ experience might be unusual.

“That’s excellent,” Goldfarb, a doctor, replied. “I certainly applaud that. But … I’m not confident that the vast majority of individuals who are willing to provide certification by telemedicine are that thorough.” Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

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This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaSMITH SUBPOENA: Election officials in Allegheny County are among those nationwide who have received subpoenas for their communications with former President Donald Trump, his aides, or his allies. The subpoenas were issued by special counsel Jack Smith, who is probing classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago, the U.S. Capitol siege, and Trump's effort to stay in power after his loss.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaPARDON PICKS: Of the more than 3,500 applications for pardons of low-level and nonviolent cannabis convictions received by the Pennsylvania Marijuana Pardon Project, only 250 people were ultimately approved for a final vote, PennLive reports. Some people submitted more than one application, but advocates say the application window was too short and the program's parameters too narrow.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaLOST MAIL: Pennsylvania Republicans are reconsidering their war on mail voting after key midterm losses. "When one party votes for 30 days and one party votes for one, you're definitely going to lose," Andy Reilly, a Republican National Committee member in Pennsylvania, told Politico. With a Democrat incoming as governor, the GOP is also rethinking its push to repeal the state's expanded mail-voting law.

EMISSIONS CHECK: With hundreds of millions of federal road repair dollars potentially on the line, the Wolf administration says it has successfully used a rare emergency process to enact new limits on methane emissions at oil and gas sites, which the federal funding requires. The Bay Journal reports the move gets around GOP opposition to the rule, which is now set to take effect Dec. 10.

WEB MAP: Pennsylvania's Broadband Authority wants you to look at this map. It shows all broadband-eligible locations across the U.S. where high-speed internet is or could be. Capital-Star reports the authority, which oversees millions of federal dollars for broadband expansion here, makes allotments based on the accuracy of the maps and wants you to quickly vet the info listed for your home address

» AP: Regulators limit fracking waste in Delaware River watershed

» FOX43Crash victims want lawmaker to pay damages for crash

» INQUIRER: Who wants to be Pa.'s next AG? (paywall)

» TRIBLIVE: Westmoreland recount finds no evidence of major errors

» WESA8 Democrats vie for DeLuca's 32nd House District seat

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

THREE-PARTER (Case No. 178): What has a neck and no head? What has a head and a tail, but no body? And what has a neck and arms but no hands?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Nine years. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Tom G., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Nathan B., Philip C., George S., Judy A., Fred O., Joe S., Lou R., Lynda G., Annette I., Peter S., Patricia M., Jon N., Joseph P., Irene T., Donna D., Jeffrey F., Ken S., Tish M., Mary B., Bernie D., Bruce B., Dennis F., Jay G., Beth T., Robert K., Seth Z., and Ed M.
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