Shoppers, Loblaw introduce medical marijuana into benefits plan

Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaw Companies Ltd. have introduced a medical marijuana benefit to their drug plan

Forty-five thousand employees are eligible for the benefit, which comes with a cap of $1,500 per year. “We regularly review our benefits plans to ensure they continue to meet the needs of our employees while also adapting to changes in the area of drug therapies,” Tammy Smitham, spokesperson for Shoppers and Loblaw, told Benefits Canada in an email.

The benefit is only available to workers suffering from chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting or spasticity and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis. 

Read: Benefits plan must cover medical pot, human rights commission rules

“It’s a positive step that Shoppers and Loblaws are taking a proactive measure to include cannabis coverage,” says Jonathan Zaid, founder of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. “Although it is a limited amount, it does speak to the ability for private companies to cover cannabis under the benefits plan, even in the absence of a [drug identification number]. . . . We would like to see patients suffering from various illnesses access coverage, whatever plan it may be.”

Dan Rego, the president of MarijuanaMedInfo who was also the vice-president for health-care services at Shoppers Drug Mart for three years, agrees the evidence supports marijuana as a treatment for cancer and multiple sclerosis patients. “But there’s other compelling evidence,” he says. “If you look at the post-traumatic stress disorder data, that’s really good. If you look at HIV/AIDS, where you have nausea and appetite issues, it’s very effective there, too. I don’t know if they have a medical advisory panel that’s deciding on the evidence or not but I think it’s an amazing start. I think, as time goes on, they could expand that criteria.”

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

The plan would cover medical marijuana through a pre-approval process requiring special authorization. “Reimbursement will be provide for prescriptions fulfilled with Licensed Producers, which is the current approved method of distribution by the government,” Smitham wrote.

Rego notes that even when he worked at the company six years ago, employees could get reimbursed for medical marijuana through a health spending account. “This is good because they formalized it and at least they put a limit,” he says, noting most patients’ bills he hears about are closer to about $2,500.

Read: How to deal with medical marijuana in the workplace 

Zaid agrees, estimating that a patient who consumes a gram a day spends between $2,500 and $3,000 a year. “But there’s a lot of different prices within the market, so it also depends if there’s a set price per gram as well,” he adds.

Last year, Shoppers announced it had applied to Health Canada to become a licensed producer of medical marijuana but solely for the purpose of distribution. A poll conducted in November 2016 found 61 per cent of Canadians supported the plan, 30 per cent opposed it and the remainder had no opinion.

Read: Most Canadians support Shoppers’ bid to sell medical marijuana