This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.

By Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA

HARRISBURG — An unofficial online directory of doctors who can approve patients for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania has been used by a competitor to steer people to his business, drawing complaints and calls on state health department officials to intervene.

“This is fraud and unfair to both the physicians and the patients,” Kimberlee Williams Park, a Delaware County physician who participates in the medical cannabis program, wrote in a May complaint to the state attorney general’s office. “It disrupts continuity of care and is pure greed.”

A complaint from Park and at least one other physician to the Department of Health prompted the agency to warn all approved doctors in the state’s medical cannabis program on May 27 about the website, Medical Marijuana doctorsrx, and The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, a medical marijuana card company.

The department wrote that the “majority of the approved practitioners who participate in the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program” were being 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 calls being answered by the Sanctuary Wellness Institute,” the department wrote in an email obtained by Spotlight PA.

The conflict between doctors and marijuana card websites highlights a bigger problem in Pennsylvania: Businesses like The Sanctuary Wellness Institute can advertise their services with impunity here, while doctors like Park are banned from doing the same.

The Department of Health’s public list of approved medical cannabis physicians doesn’t include information like phone numbers, email addresses, or websites. That has allowed unofficial directory websites to flourish, said Jennifer Minkovich, a Bucks County physician.

Meanwhile, the law currently bans doctors from advertising that they can approve patients for the program, which limits how people can find them.

“If the DOH has interpreted the statute to mean that physicians cannot even identify themselves as ‘certifying physicians’ on their own practice’s website because that is considered ‘advertising,’ then by no means should any outside website be able to advertise a physician’s name, let alone without the consent of the physician,” Minkovich wrote in an email.

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 from 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 so and we were unaware that he had,” DiBella wrote.

The state’s 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 discounts on Groupon, dominate Google search results, and offer money-back guarantees if patients aren’t approved.

A previous Spotlight PA investigation revealed some certification companies made inaccurate or misleading medical claims to attract customers, and the Department of Health said it has no regulatory oversight over these businesses.

But the agency has issued roughly a dozen warning letters to doctors for alleged advertising violations, going so far as to threaten a physician’s medical license. Most of the alleged violations were for information describing basic services or credentials on a website for a physician or practice.

Even the Department of Health’s recent email to physicians informing them about Medical Marijuana doctorsrx put the enforcement burden on physicians — not the company running the website. The department urged doctors to review the website “to ensure that you are not listed nor has inaccurate information been posted.”

The operators of Medical Marijuana doctorsrx have made recent updates to the website. But Montgomery County physician Sara Abbruzzi told Spotlight PA the changes didn’t go far enough, calling the tactics a “total bait and switch” for patients.

“It’s upsetting to those of us who abide by the rules,” Abbruzzi said. “These big companies just kind of sweep in.”

DiBella’s company, The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, offers to connect people to a doctor so they can get approved for a medical marijuana card. Those 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 physicians about his company.

Both The Sanctuary Wellness Institute and Medical Marijuana doctorsrx are listed as clients of Netlocal, a search engine optimization company that names DiBella as the owner and founder.

Medical Marijuana doctorsrx offers physicians the option of paying $249 a month for a “well designed SEO landing page” on the directory website and other services. But the site also listed physicians who didn’t pay or 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 becoming more of 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 physicians. 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 being provided to the doctors,” DiBella told Spotlight PA in early May.

Several physicians told Spotlight PA they don’t see it that way.

“These large corporations that are driven by nonclinical people … are basically trying to lure patients falsely to their company,” Abbruzzi told Spotlight PA. “And I think it’s a shame that the Department of Health isn’t doing more about it.”

A health department spokesperson told Spotlight PA the agency “does not have authority” over third-party operators. “We would welcome legislative interest in strengthening our ability to protect patients and doctors from outside vendors using loopholes in the legislation to mislead or otherwise victimize patients seeking medicine,” the spokesperson said.

As of June 1, a search on Medical Marijuana doctorsrx for physicians in Pennsylvania yielded 28 pages of results on the site. Almost every page listed more than 40 physicians.

The directory still included physician names and addresses, but not phone numbers. A disclaimer on the “Contact Us” page noted that the website “is not affiliated with every doctor listed on this website,” but didn’t go into more detail.

Individual profile pages included a note at the bottom, telling physicians to contact the company if they wanted to be removed from the website.

DiBella told Spotlight PA the company was offering to update doctor profile pages with any information they would like free of charge as “a show of good will.”

Some doctors, like Park, the Delaware County physician, aren’t interested in that offer.

“No way,” she wrote in a text message to Spotlight PA.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.