A look at four benefits plan models for covering medical marijuana

For Jonathan Zaid, the benefits of medical cannabis aren’t theoretical or clinical; they’re deeply personal.

Diagnosed at age 14 with daily persistent headache, a rare and extremely painful condition, Zaid tried more than 40 medications before medical marijuana enabled him to sleep through the night for the first time in five years. Now the director of advocacy and corporate social responsibility at Aurora Cannabis Inc., Zaid was the first Canadian to receive coverage for medical cannabis through his benefits plan.

“The whole regime around medical cannabis has been driven by patients,” he told participants at the 2018 Halifax Benefits Summit in September. “The courts have determined that Canadians have a medical right to access cannabis.”

Read: Medical questions, regulations create confusion for medical pot coverage

There are currently more than 296,000 registrations under the federal Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations and more than 13,350 unique authorizations from health-care providers, noted Zaid during his presentation. The average dose is 2.1 grams a day for illnesses that range from cancer to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to epilepsy. “Chronic pain is the most common condition,” he said.

According to Health Canada’s 2017 Canadian cannabis survey, 97 per cent of respondents who use medical marijuana reported symptom relief and 72 per cent decreased their use of other medications.

Despite the fact that medical cannabis is legal, the landscape will change on Oct. 17 when recreational marijuana is legalized in Canada, as it will include new excise taxes, changes to packaging and labelling, the removal of a possession limit, the elimination of a 30-day ordering window and provincial consumption regulations.

Read: Consider health benefits, workplace policies as legal cannabis approaches

Employers will have two key responsibilities in the new environment, said Zaid. First, they’ll be required by law to ensure safety in the workplace. Second, they have a duty to accommodate employees with medical needs. While an effective drug and alcohol policy will incorporate both, “each case has to be assessed separately.”

In addition to an effective policy, “it is important to have medical cannabis integrated into an overall medical plan,” said Zaid.

To date, coverage uptake has been slowed by the lack of both a drug identification number and any clear direction for employers and plan sponsors. However, the tide is shifting, according to Zaid. “All insurers have made at least one exception, and some are starting to offer cannabis coverage add-ons.”

There are four coverage models for employers to consider with respect to medical marijuana, he added. These include providing an individual employee eligibility assessment, creating a general health-care spending account, developing a separate health-care spending account for medical cannabis and providing broad coverage for any employees with a prescription.

Read more coverage from the 2018 Halifax Benefits Summit