Recreational cannabis is now legal across Canada, but workplace benefit plans will need time to catch up when it comes to extending coverage for medical marijuana. As it stands, medical cannabis generally isn’t covered by third-party insurance plans because it hasn’t been reviewed, approved and assigned a Drug Identification Number (DIN) by Health Canada.
Medical cannabis is prescribed by healthcare professionals to help with specific conditions, including (but not limited to) cancer, chronic pain and nausea, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and PTSD. Individuals registered under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) program are authorized to obtain product from a licensed producer, or can apply to Health Canada to grow their own plants.
Recreational legalization could help move the dial by reducing stigma and increasing awareness around how cannabis can be used to treat certain medical conditions. There’s also likely to be a surge in the number of people seeking to become registered ACMPR patients, which will put pressure on insurers and employers to extend coverage under their workplace benefit plans.
Here are some of the medical cannabis coverage options currently available to Canadians:
For now, Canadians with health spending accounts or healthcare spending accounts are in the best position. If medical cannabis is eligible, individuals can be reimbursed for their expenses regardless of the condition they are treating with cannabis.
Some health spending accounts decide which medical expenses are permissible based on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA)’s list of eligible medical expenses. Since 2015, the CRA has considered cannabis flower, oil, seeds and plants purchased with a prescription from a licensed producer to be eligible medical expenses.
If a group benefit plan does cover cannabis, it’s usually for specific illnesses. Sun Life Financial, one of Canada’s largest insurers, announced that as of March 1, 2018 it will offer optional cannabis coverage under its extended health care plans for people with five conditions: cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, and individuals requiring palliative care.
Benefits carrier Green Shield Canada instituted a similar system, but only three conditions are covered: chronic neuropathic pain, spasticity due to multiple sclerosis, and nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy.
A few major employers also have announced coverage. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, for example, added medical marijuana to their benefits plan in 2017, with no medical condition limitations and a $3,000 a year maximum. Loblaw Cos. Ltd. employees using medical cannabis for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, or spasticity and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis, can claim up to $1,500 a year.
For medical cannabis patients without third-party insurance coverage, a portion of the costs related to product can be claimed on your federal income tax return. The CRA allows dried cannabis, cannabis oils, and cannabis seeds and plants purchased under a prescription from a licensed producer as a “medical expense” deduction.
Without extensive research on things like dosage, side effects, and symptom relief, Health Canada is unable to assign cannabis a DIN, and workplace benefit plans are unable to cover it the way they cover other prescription drugs. However, as the government increases funding to better understand the health effects of cannabis, there’s a small but growing body of research.
Now that cannabis is starting to get equal treatment to any other pharmaceutical drugs, broad workplace coverage can’t be far behind — after nearly 100 years of cannabis prohibition, it just takes time.
Dylan Dee is the community manager for Lift & Co. He’s passionate about connecting cannabis experts with bud beginners.