Medical Marijuana and Employee Benefits in 2019 – What You Need to Know

Even though medical marijuana has been legal for seventeen years, it hasn’t been widely implemented as an employee benefit by insurance carriers. The legalization of cannabis as a recreational drug five months ago, however, has turned this into a hot topic and made more carriers and employers sit up and take notice.

The Cannabis Act of 2018 allows users of the legal age of 19 (18 in Alberta and Quebec) to purchase up to 30 grams of dried cannabis or grow up to four marijuana plants in a legal residence.

Is medical marijuana covered under employee benefit plans?

Right now, Health Canada has not passed a (DIN) or Drug Identification Number for medical cannabis, and until that happens, insurers are not able to cover it under a drug plan.

All the main insurance carriers in Canada now offer optional coverage for medical cannabis under their extended health care benefit, allowing  for comprehensive coverage and control. Medical Cannabis claims covered through insurers extended health care benefit, are subject to prior authorization.

What medical conditions are covered?

At this point in time, insurers are offering this coverage for select medical conditions, including symptoms associated with:

  • Palliative care
  • Severe pain, nausea and/or vomiting associated with cancer treatments.
  • Chronic neuropathic pain or spasticity associated with Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Chronic pain associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis which has failed to respond to standard therapy.
  • Anorexia
  • Chronic neuropathic pain associated with HIV/AIDS.

Covered conditions vary by insurer. Depending on the insurer, annual maximum options range between $1,000 and $6,000 per employee, per year. Employers with ASO (Administrative Services Only) plans may have some more freedom in deciding what they want their coverage to be.

Health spending accounts or Cost Plus are other options to cover medical marijuana.  The CRA does classify medical marijuana as an allowable expense. It is up to employers to decide whether they will offer these benefits.

Many employers are consulting their legal and HR departments to figure out what their companies’ policies are when it comes to marijuana use. The Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act must be taken into account when providing a safe workplace for employees.

If you are an employer that is thinking about offering medical marijuana coverage on your benefits plan you may want to consider:

  • Will it increase the benefit plans usage and what impact will that have on cost?
  • Health issues differ, is it suited to your workplace?
  • Would not offering coverage cause a backlash?
  • Do you have policies and procedures in place to roll this out?

With so many unknowns it’s always a good idea to consult with your employee benefits broker. They will be able to advise you of the best course of action for your specific situation. 

What will the future bring?

There are already some companies and unions that have jumped on the medical cannabis benefits bandwagon. Liuna local 625 in Windsor is now offering medical marijuana through its benefits plan, and since 2017, 45,000 Loblaw’s employees have been covered for medical cannabis up to a $1,500 per year limit.

Last July, Manulife unveiled a new tool with Shoppers Drug Mart allowing virtual support from a trained team to patients using medical Cannabis.

Shoppers Drug Mart’s e-commerce platform for medical cannabis launched in early 2019. People can now register through their website (shoppersdrugmart.ca/cannabis) or by calling a toll-free number (1-844-633-2627).

Patients are required to submit the proper medical documentation to Shoppers Drug Mart, and then they can start shopping online through Shoppers Drug Mart’s website or by phone, with delivery to patients’ home, or physician’s office.

In the future, medical cannabis could be a standard option for employee benefits plans, but as it stands right now, there are still more hurdles to overcome before that happens.

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