Plan sponsors, members interested in cannabis, pharmacogenetics: survey

Plan sponsors and members are increasingly interested in making non-core benefits like pharmacogenetic testing and medical cannabis part of their plans, according to the 2019 Sanofi Canada health-care survey

For pharmacogenetics, 74 per cent of plan members said they’d consent to giving a sample of their DNA so a physician could prescribe the most effective medication for them, while 65 per cent of plan sponsors said they’re interested in providing coverage for the testing.

Interest in the benefit was particularly high among companies with 500 or more employees (79 per cent), unionized workforces (80 per cent) and flex plans (76 per cent). Quebec employers expressed the most interest (71 per cent) of all provinces.

Read: A look at one company’s experience with pharmacogenetic testing

“Pharmacogenetic testing is a harbinger for the future. Right now there are growing pains, but we will get there,” said Alain Sotto, medical director of the Medcan Wellness Clinic, an occupational medical consultant for the TTC and a member of the survey’s advisory board, within the report. “A whole new wave of exciting medications is coming to mitigate or better control chronic diseases, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure the right drug is prescribed from the beginning.”

In terms of medical cannabis, 64 per cent of plan members said if cannabis was authorized by a physician it should be covered by their workplace benefits plan. Plan members in Atlantic Canada were most likely (75 per cent) to feel that way, as well as those living with chronic pain (70 per cent).

Plan sponsors are also getting on board with covering medical cannabis: 45 per cent said they’d like their plan to cover it, up from just 34 per cent a year ago, while 27 per cent said they didn’t know or weren’t sure. Mirroring the plan member results, plan sponsors from Atlantic Canada were most likely (54 per cent) to feel medical cannabis should be covered. More than half (55 per cent) of employers with unionized workforces agreed.

“There continues to be a gap in perception [of cannabis] between plan members and plan sponsors, and that gap, we can see, is starting to close,” said Jennifer Elia, assistant vice-president of integrated health solutions at Sun Life Financial and an advisory board member, during the survey’s launch event in Toronto on Tuesday. “The opportunity we have before us here is to continue using an evidence-based approach that looks at the efficacy . . . of medical cannabis in addressing treatment needs.”

Read: 65% of Canadians would take cannabis if covered by insurance

The percentage of plans that do cover medical cannabis is also increasing, albeit slowly, with 12 per cent of plan sponsors saying it’s offered under their plan, up from eight per cent a year ago.

As well, when plan sponsors were offered five potential annual amounts for cannabis coverage, based on costs ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 per person per year, they most commonly chose annual maximums of $3,000 (43 per cent) or $1,500 (22 per cent). Seventeen per cent of plan sponsors chose $6,000, seven per cent suggested $10,000 and a further 10 per cent said there should be no maximum for coverage.

Plan members were also asked about their interest in a range of other potential new benefits offerings. More than half (51 per cent) of those surveyed said they or their family members would go to a pharmacist to be assessed and prescribed medications for simple conditions if it was an option. The percentage jumped to 61 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

Read: Just 9% of employers offer virtual health care: survey

Virtual care was also popular with respondents. Nearly half (45 per cent) of plan members said they or their family members would use the offering if it were available. At 50 per cent, interest in that service was stronger among people aged 18 to 34, compared to just 38 per cent for people aged 55 and older.

A strong majority of plan sponsors (78 per cent) also indicated they’re interested in providing coverage for virtual care services, with 31 per cent saying they’re very interested.

If plan members had access to coaching services by health-care professionals who aren’t doctors — such as smoking cessation or weight-loss programs — 45 per cent said they’d be interested in using it. People with poor health (56 per cent) were particularly interested, followed by people with self-described poor financial health (51 per cent) and those experiencing chronic pain (50 per cent).

“We can see it’s those with chronic diseases and dealing with chronic pain who are most likely to take advantage of those services,” said Elia. “How do we identify who those people are and make sure we’re offering the right support at the right time?”

Within the report, Sarah Murphy, director of strategic market solutions at Green Shield Canada and a member of the advisory board, noted that several potential new benefits are generating plenty of interest and conversation, but involve some complexity.

“To navigate through that, we need to stay focused and hold ourselves accountable to following the medical evidence, to determine what really adds value to a benefits plan. That will allow us to take small, manageable steps to expand coverage in a smart and thoughtful way.”

Read: Gaps persist in plan sponsor, member views on benefits: Sanofi