Medical Cannabis Coverage in Benefits Programs; Who Is Ready?

This is a guest post authored by Jason Fleming, CHRL, Director of Human Resources at MedReleaf. 

As if navigating the increasingly complex process of designing company-sponsored benefits plans wasn’t challenging enough, medical cannabis has now entered the equation. If you haven’t received a request for medical cannabis coverage from an employee yet, you likely will soon.  

What is a forward-thinking, innovative, employee-centric HR Leader to do when their employees request medical cannabis coverage? What options do employers have when it comes to offering coverage for medical cannabis through their company-sponsored benefits plan? First, let's review some important facts about medical cannabis.

What is cannabis and what are the medical benefits of cannabis?

Cannabis is derived from the cannabis plant (cannabis sativa). It grows wild in many of the tropical and temperate areas of the world. It can be grown in almost any climate and is increasingly cultivated by means of indoor hydroponic technology. The two most prominent medical ingredients in Cannabis are THC (delta 9-tetrahydrocannibinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). 

Among many other applicable uses, THC has shown promise as an effective pain-killer, and recent studies are reporting that it even reduces the amyloid plaques in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer's. THC is also an anti-spasmodic, muscle relaxant, and is widely used to reduce nausea.

CBD is proving to be as beneficial and versatile a cannabinoid as THC in addressing many additional hard-to-manage symptoms deriving from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, and Crohn’s and Colitis. CBD also has very strong anxiolytic (reduces anxiousness), anti-convulsant, anti-emetic (reduces nausea), and anti-inflammatory properties (back pain, joint pain, etc.). It is important to note that CBD does not have the psychoactive effects of THC; it will not result in a “high”.

What is the legal status of medical cannabis, dispensaries, and recreational cannabis?

Provided a patient has the required medical documentation from a physician, accessing medical cannabis is 100% legal as long as it is accessed through a Licensed Producer directly. There are approximately 30 Licensed Producers across Canada. Cannabis dispensaries are currently unregulated and not a safe or legal avenue for accessing medical cannabis. 

How many Canadians use medical cannabis today?

It is estimated that approximately 90,000 Canadians use medical cannabis legally today. The projected number of users is expected to increase to 450,000 by 2024. Needless to say, the number of Canadians who will depend on medical cannabis to treat a vast array of medical conditions is becoming increasingly significant.  

Why do people use medical cannabis?

As previously mentioned, there appear to be several medical benefits of cannabis. Some of the conditions and ailments for which physicians are currently prescribing medical cannabis include:

•    Sleep disorders
•    Depression, PTSD and Anxiety disorders
•    Chronic pain
•    Crohn’s and Colitis
•    Epilepsy and Seizures
•    Multiple Sclerosis
•    Nausea and Vomiting
•    Fibromyalgia
•    Arthritis
•    Alzheimer’s Disease
•    Parkinson’s disease

What about workplace impairment issues?

Many HR professionals are concerned about how they can manage impairment in the workplace from medical cannabis (or recreational cannabis, if/when it becomes legal). In reality, most organizations have (or should have) a drug and alcohol policy that would govern the use of medical cannabis or recreational cannabis in the workplace.  

If you categorize and manage the use of medical cannabis the same way you would a more common pain medication (such as codeine), it is much simpler than trying to develop a cannabis-specific policy.  Similarly, if/when recreational cannabis is legalized it can be managed in the same manner as employers are currently managing the use of alcohol in the workplace.  You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Every company should develop their drug and alcohol policy in good faith and in a manner that meets their duty to accommodate employees with substance abuse challenges as well as employees taking prescription medication(s). It is also important for employers to consider the risks that are unique to their specific workplace, including any safety-sensitive positions when developing drug and alcohol policies and programs.

What options do employers have if they want to explore adding medical cannabis coverage to their benefits plan?

My company, MedReleaf (Canada’s premier producer of medical cannabis), is one of the first companies in Canada to cover medical cannabis through our benefits plan. It goes without saying that we believe in the many health benefits of medical cannabis, but we also wanted to give our employees the freedom to choose their own medication. Increasingly, we are seeing people opting for natural treatment options and we wanted to ensure that we provided these options to our employees.

It was challenging to find a benefits partner who was willing to explicitly cover medical cannabis in a company-sponsored benefits program. Despite the medical evidence of the benefits of cannabis, it has not yet been uniformly accepted as a treatment option. Luckily, the industry is making rapid progress in educating medical professionals and the public alike on the apparent health benefits.

Eventually, we teamed up with TEBCO (The Employee Benefits Company) who helped us develop a new plan that provides all employees with an annual allowance for medical cannabis. The reaction from our workforce was extremely positive.

Every employer faces their own unique challenges regarding benefits plan design, including cost, collective agreements and executive buy-in. However, it is important to remember that benefits programs should ultimately be designed to provide employees with a variety of quality coverage options. In anticipation of the massive increase in the number of Canadians using medical cannabis, employers have a unique opportunity to demonstrate innovation and proactivity in the design of their benefits plans.

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