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Benefit plan coverage for medical cannabis still uncommon, says expert

Great-West Life is the latest Canadian insurer to offer medical cannabis coverage as an option for employee benefit plans. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Great-West Life is the latest Canadian insurer to offer medical cannabis coverage as an option for employee benefit plans. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

A growing number of Canadian insurance companies are offering medical cannabis coverage as an option for employee health benefit plans, but a benefits industry expert says not many employers are actually signing up to cover the drug.

Great-West Life is the latest Canadian group health insurer to offer some kind of cannabis coverage. Companies that use Great-West Life to deliver health benefit plans to their employees can now opt in to the program, which could cover the cost of cannabis when it's prescribed to treat specific medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS or palliative symptoms. Coverage would max out at $5,000 a year.

The move brings Great-West Life in line with other major Canadian benefit plan providers, including Manulife and Sun Life, which offer similar options for plans sponsored by their client companies.

But very few Canadian employers are actually opting into these cannabis coverage programs, says benefits industry expert Mike Sullivan.

"I've actually been amazed at how little uptake there's been," says Sullivan, president and CEO of Cubic Health, which helps companies manage employee benefit plans.

Sullivan sees a few reasons why Canadian employers appear hesitant to cover the cost of medical cannabis as a benefit. First of all, some employee benefit plans already cover medical cannabis indirectly through healthcare spending accounts, which offer employees a fixed annual pool of funding to cover certain healthcare costs.

Another big worry for employers is the potential cost of covering medical cannabis, Sullivan says. Even though these plans only cover cannabis for a small number of medical conditions right now, Sullivan thinks employers are worried about the future.

"I think the concern is, where is this going to end up in two or three years from now?" he says.

"If they approve it now, are they going to end up in a spot where they're going to have to be covering this for eight to ten conditions, and what's that going to look like financially for them?"

Employers are already spending lots of money to offer prescription drug coverage as a health benefit, according to Sullivan, citing the rising cost of specialty drugs for certain severe medical conditions.

"So there's already trepidation about how they're going to manage some of that (financial) exposure, and then the idea of adding cannabis on top is a concern for people."

From an employers' perspective, the other major concern about covering medical cannabis as an insured benefit is workplace impairment, Sullivan says.

"Most employers, when they boil it down… they just don't want to take any risks," he says.

Sullivan expects more legal and scientific clarity around medical cannabis in the years to come, which might lead to more interest in covering the drug as an employee benefit, but in the meantime, he's surprised more employers don't appear to be considering cannabis coverage as an option, especially in the context of the opioid crisis.

"You see individuals claiming very substantial amounts of narcotics in some cases," he says.

"And it's interesting how there isn't a huge focus on the impairment risks and other risks associated there, but there really is on the cannabis side."


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