With Canadian retailer Loblaw Companies Limited last week announcing that employee insurance plans would now cover some medical marijuana prescriptions, medical pot advocates are now in waiting for other employers and their insurers to jump on board, a move which may take a while yet, say health experts.
In what is being called another step towards legitimization of the medical use of marijuana in Canada, Loblaw sent out an internal staff notice last week stating that, effective immediately, workers at Loblaw, Superstore and Shoppers Drug Marts across the country would be covered for medical marijuana expenses under their employee benefit package, up to a maximum of $1,500 per year.
Loblaw spokesperson Tammy Smitham said the company was “adapting to changes in the area of drug therapies.”
At the point, the coverage is restricted to the treatment of symptoms of multiple sclerosis and side-effects related to cancer treatment, but being the first large employer in Canada (Loblaw Companies employs about 45,000 people) to put pot on the list of eligible expenses is significant.
“It’s a positive step that Shoppers and Loblaws are taking a proactive measure to include cannabis coverage,” says Jonathan Zaid, founder of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, in a statement to Benefits Canada.
Zaid, whose group works to improve rights for medical cannabis patients, fought and won a battle in 2015 to have his own health insurer at the University of Waterloo cover his medical pot expenses, says of the Loblaw decision, “Although it is a limited amount, it does speak to the ability for private companies to cover cannabis under the benefits plan, even in the absence of a [drug identification number]. . . . We would like to see patients suffering from various illnesses access coverage, whatever plan it may be.”
Back in 2015, the Canada Revenue Agency took the step of designating medical cannabis purchased under a prescription as an allowable medical expense. Yet the issue of obtaining a drug identification number (DIN) will be a crucial step in the process —and one that could take time, as Health Canada’s approval process for new drugs (required to get a DIN) normally involves rigorous testing and research, something that has yet to be conducted in full on marijuana and its potential treatment purposes.
“There’s not a lot of good research on the impact of adding medical marijuana to your drug program,” says Joan Weir of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, to CBC News. “So there needs to be a fair bit more research to make employers comfortable on including it as a benefit.”
Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia human rights board ruled that an employee insurance plan must cover a Nova Scotia man’s medical marijuana claims, saying that because the complainant, Gordon Skinner of Head of Chezzetcook, who suffers from chronic pain resulting from an on-the-job accident in 2010, had provided a valid prescription to his insurer, excluding the claim would amount to discrimination.
Currently, many private insurers in Canada list medical marijuana under the list of expenses eligible for deduction under various plans’ health spending accounts.