Benefits Plans and Medical Cannabis Coverage

With the Cannabis Act coming into force on October 17, 2018 which will legalize non-medical cannabis, the topic of whether medical cannabis should be included as part of a group benefits plan has been top of mind among some employers.

For a few years several carriers across Canada have allowed payment of medical cannabis through a Health Care Spending Account.  Early this year two carriers now allow the addition of medical cannabis to their group benefit plans outside the HCSA: Green Shield Canada and Sun Life Financial Canada.

Does that mean other carriers will follow suit? Probably, but if that were to be the case should employers consider covering medical marijuana?

Given the recent systematic review of over 1,000 cannabis studies published this year in the Canadian Family Physician (CFP) and their clinical practice guidelines, the CFP recommendation is against the use of medical cannabinoids as first- or second-line therapy and against smoked, oils or edibles products.  Furthermore, when considering medical cannabinoids, the CFP guideline recommends a pharmaceutically developed product (nabilone or nabiximols) as the initial agent.  The guideline also suggested physicians could consider medical cannabinoids for refractory neuropathic pain (weak recommendation), for refractory pain in palliative cancer patients (weak recommendation.)

At this stage adding medical cannabis to plan sponsors’ benefit plans seems premature.  Note, however, that employers have a duty to accommodate employees who use medical cannabis for treatment (the result of the Federal Court ruling in the case of the Allard v. Canada), irrespective of the evidence of the adverse effects of medical cannabis, the recent CFP guideline or whether the benefits plan covers or not the drug.

Sources: Canadian Family Physician February 2018, Insurance carriers websites.

About the Author: Gerardo Maldonado has over 17 years of experience in the group benefits field earning his Certified Employee Benefit Specialist designation in 2004.  As Employee Benefits Consultant he has helped family run businesses and large corporate clients design, market and renew their employee benefits plan in a cost-effective manner while maximizing the potential for employee retention.