In the latest step towards insurance industry acceptance of cannabis as an insurable medicine, students at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus who use cannabis for medical purposes may soon be able to get their medication covered by their students' union's health benefits plan.
The new health benefit, announced in a press release Wednesday morning, makes the UBC Students' Union Okanagan just the second post-secondary students' union in Canada to cover the drug, according to Jonathan Zaid, executive director of advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. (The first was the students' union at the University of Waterloo, which agreed to cover medical cannabis under its health benefits plan in 2015 in response to lobbying by Zaid, who is a part-time student at that school.)
It remains rare for Canadian health benefit plans to cover medical cannabis, although insurer Sun Life Financial recently announced it will offer optional, limited coverage of medical cannabis through employer-sponsored health benefit plans.
"Currently, many plan sponsors and insurers express reluctance to begin covering medical cannabis due to a lack of data," explained Zaid.
But the trial coverage that will be offered under the UBC Students' Union Okanagan benefit plan will be paired with a research project that aims to gather new data on how insurance coverage of medical cannabis affects student health.
"By adopting pilot programs that have research frameworks... we'll be able to collect the data that these organizations feel that they need to adopt broader coverage of medical cannabis," said Zaid.
In addition to the general lack of insurance benefit plan coverage for medical cannabis, said Zaid, "there's also sales tax applied to medical cannabis, whereas no prescriptions have any tax on them. So it's great to see insurers like Sun Life start offering optional add-on products for plan sponsors to purchase in order to cover medical cannabis."Advertisement
"With that said, we're not yet seeing insurers actually underwriting the cost... hopefully the research framework will be able to collect data to better prove the risk associated and the benefit associated with medical cannabis."
The research, which will be overseen by UBC Okanagan psychology professor and cannabis researcher Zachary Walsh, could help fill in the blanks about how many students use medical cannabis and what they use it for, according to Michelle Thiessen, a graduate student in clinical psychology at UBC Okanagan who studies under Walsh and lobbied the students' union to cover medical cannabis.
The exact parameters of the research project, said Thiessen, are still being worked out. She said the project could collect data including how many students are applying for coverage and the cost of that coverage, as well as quality of life, "changes in educational attainment, mood, and interpersonal relationships."
"Say you're incentivized to use other medications like benzodiazepines or opioids because of cost savings (due to insurance coverage), then maybe switching over to medical cannabis is going to change some of those quality-of-life factors," said Thiessen.
Thiessen, who previously used cannabis for medical purposes and serves as chair of the Okanagan chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the coverage will "be pretty conservative initially," with a total coverage limit of $20,000 for the trial period that will run from September 2018 to August 2019.
UBC Okanagan students who want to apply to receive insurance coverage for their medical cannabis will have to be registered with Health Canada's legal medical cannabis program, and will need to provide medical documentation. Priority will be given to those students with "severe conditions such as chronic pain and nausea from chemotherapy," according to the press release from Canadians for Fair Access to Marijuana and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
"For this first year especially, I want to make sure that students with the greatest need are receiving coverage rather than just anyone with any sort of condition," said Thiessen.
Students who are approved for medical cannabis coverage will still pay a 20 per cent co-pay on their cannabis purchases, just like they would for other insured medications.
Zaid believes more students' unions at other Canadian universities, as well as other health benefit plan sponsors like private employers and labour unions, will start covering the costs of medical cannabis in the years to come.
University students, said Thiessen, are in "a really unique position" to start making that coverage a reality.
"We're governing these large bodies, and overseeing these plans that serve thousands of students, so we can really be leading the change," she said.