Why should medical cannabis be included in a benefits plan?

Drug used to treat everything from chronic pain to epilepsy to Crohn’s disease

Why should medical cannabis be included in a benefits plan?
Today in Canada, all benefits providers pay claims for cannabis through health spending accounts if someone has medical authorization. Shutterstock

Jonathan Zaid was 14 when he started suffering from a persistent, daily headache he described as “unrelenting pressure combined with migraines and insomnia” that significantly impacted his ability to function in daily life.

After trying nearly 50 different drugs to ease his suffering, cannabis was the only thing that helped, he says.

“When I first tried medical cannabis, I had my first proper night’s sleep in five years,” says Zaid. “It allowed me to regain quality of life, including the ability to go to university.”

In 2014, Zaid was one of the first Canadians to have medical cannabis covered by a private insurer when he was an undergraduate student at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. At the time, he was paying more than $600 per month for medical cannabis. He asked Waterloo’s student union to cover it under their Sun Life Financial health-care plan, and after some lengthy discussions and advocacy, they agreed.

“The student union rightfully decided to cover medical cannabis like they would with any other medication,” says Zaid, who founded the non-profit advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM) while at Waterloo.

Five years later, at age 26, Zaid is now director of advocacy and corporate social responsibility at Aurora Cannabis, which offers a medical cannabis coverage option through its Sun Life group benefits plan.

“It is the right thing to do,” says CHRO Debra Wilson. “Cannabis use for medicinal purposes is changing people’s lives and creating better days… It’s no different than other prescription drugs.”

Easing the pain

Medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001. Its use is often recommended for chronic pain and symptoms associated with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and palliative care.

In the past, the effectiveness of medical cannabis has been studied to a lesser degree, but Marni Brooks, a family doctor practising in cannabinoid medicine, says it has proven to be a “very effective” treatment for a range of issues.

Brooks, who has a background in addiction medicine, also chairs the Ontario Medical Association’s Medical Interest Group in Cannabinoid Medicine. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds (such as cannabidiol or CBD) that give cannabis its therapeutic and psychoactive effects.

Brooks says she’s usually the “last line” for her patients as cannabis and cannabis-derived medicines are successfully being used to treat “all sorts of chronic pain conditions” such as osteoporosis and fibromyalgia, as well as inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease, autoimmune conditions like psoriasis, neurological conditions like epilepsy and mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Insurance companies, as you probably know, cover an unlimited amount of opiates for pain,” she says, citing one of the most common uses for medical cannabis. “I feel strongly in harm reduction… and if you want to reduce harm and costs, cover cannabinoids.”

Making the claim

Today in Canada, all benefits providers pay claims for cannabis through health spending accounts if someone has medical authorization. Other companies — such as Sun Life, Manulife, Great-West Life, SSQ Insurance and Blue Cross — have gone a step further.

“Many have decided to offer an add-on medical cannabis plan because there is valid evidence of effectiveness in some medical situations,” says Joan Weir, director of health and disability policy at the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA), which represents nearly all of the country’s life and health insurance providers.

“Typically, it would be similar to a benefit for the services of a chiropractor or a physiotherapist, with a yearly maximum in place,” she says.

Such coverage is “not a standard offering anywhere yet,” says Weir. In most cases, it also only covers pre-authorized patients with a small group of severe conditions or pre-authorized patients who have exhausted conventional treatment options. Companies’ lists of qualifying conditions, however, are expected to grow along with medical cannabis research.

“Of course, employers who choose to offer this as a benefit typically will have the ability to choose that criteria or may have a plan without criteria,” she says.

That’s exactly what Aurora negotiated as it now offers $3,000 in annual medical cannabis coverage to employees if they have preauthorization from a physician, no matter what their condition.

“Getting that type of coverage outside of an HSA was very important to us,” says Wilson. “Our values demand it. We’ve positioned ourselves as leaders in our industry, and that includes our people programs. For us, covering medical cannabis is just one piece of our total rewards system that will attract the best.”

Covering medical cannabis should also not just be for cannabis industry players, says Zaid.

“When authorized by a physician and recommended to an individual for the treatment of a medical condition, it’s important to consider that individual’s needs,” he says. “Lots of patients are using medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids and benzodiazepines and other potentially dangerous drugs that are covered under existing plans that exclude cannabis. It’s important to support employees’ health — that’s the ultimate goal of any benefits plan.”

Daniel Otis is a writer with Aurora Cannabis’ communications team. He can be reached at daniel.otis@auroramj.com or for more information, visit www.auroramj.com.

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