Legalization for recreational cannabis is a hot-button topic in Canadian politics right now. Meanwhile, medical cannabis has been legal for years now. It’s only been recently, however, that Canadian patients and medical practitioners alike have started treating medical cannabis as a potential treatment for many different conditions. As high-quality research evidence mounts, a strong case is being built for how cannabis could play a role in improving the health of Canadians.
When it comes to authorizing medical cannabis, however, one of the concerns both patients and doctors have is the cost of this medication. Many patients want to know if the cost will be partially or fully covered by their existing health insurance.
The Status Quo
Until early 2018, no insurance providers included coverage for medical cannabis in their prescription medication coverage. As provincial healthcare insurance doesn’t include medical marijuana on its list of covered medications, Canadians who were authorized medical cannabis had no coverage for their medication under either the public healthcare system or private insurance.
About the best a Canadian patient could do was submit the cost of medical cannabis on their tax filings with the Canada Revenue Agency. The CRA lists medical cannabis as an eligible expense, meaning you can use the purchase to get a rebate on your tax filing.
For most Canadians, this isn’t a good solution. It means you’ll still need to pay for the cost of your medication up front, at the time of purchase, and out of your own pocket. It can defer reimbursement for up to a year, and “reimbursement” will be a small percentage that increases your tax return or reduces what you owe to the CRA.
As the number of medical cannabis patients in Canada has increased, more people have started thinking about the accessibility of this medication. The cost barrier can be prohibitive for many, which could keep them from getting the treatment they need.
It may also make less effective treatments or potentially harmful treatment options, such as opioid medications, more cost-effective for Canadians. As the opioid crisis continues to deepen, the wisdom of providing coverage for opioid medications and not a safer alternative such as medical cannabis has to be questioned.
Many employers are now revisiting their workplace policies about substance use, especially in light of looming legalization for recreational cannabis. Questions about medical marijuana in the workplace are becoming more common and, along with them, questions about why this legitimate medication isn’t being covered by benefits providers.
In February 2018, Sun Life Financial announced it would be adding coverage for medical cannabis to its benefits packages. It would offer up to $6,000 per year for eligible medical marijuana expenses.
This is a major shake-up in the Canadian insurance industry. Sun Life is one of the larger players in the industry, offering benefits to nearly 25,000 Canadian companies. Other major insurance companies, such as Great West Life, Manulife, and others will likely be reviewing their own policies and determining how they can offer coverage for medical marijuana as part of their private benefits insurance as well.
Employers need to opt in and add medical marijuana coverage to their employee benefits package. Alternately, a patient could choose to take out a private policy, although this could be expensive. Insurance prices are determined by risk of policy use, so if you already use medical cannabis, your account may be assessed as high-risk and charged a higher premium.
Time for Governments to Step Up
Not every Canadian has private insurance offered through an employer, and not every Canadian is in a position to take out their own private insurance policy just to cover the cost of a medication they need.
It’s time for the provincial and territorial governments to step up and cover the costs of medical marijuana for all Canadians. Only then will this medication be truly affordable and available to all.