Article by Jenna Valleriani, Huffington Post
Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws recently made headlines by announcing they will cover medical cannabis for their employees. This is a strong first step for Canada’s largest pharmacy chains, and sets a precedent which should be followed by other employers.
But the devil is always in the details. While these two chains should be praised for their progressive steps forward, we also need to ask who this coverage is provided for, how much is being covered, as well as how this fits with the overall long-term strategy to position pharmacies as the front-line dispensers of medical cannabis.
Coverage of cannabis under group insurance plans is quite rare in Canada. In 2015, for example, student Jonathan Zaid, who suffers from New Daily Persistent Headache, captured the attention of news across Canada for advocating, and eventually getting approval, for medical cannabis coverage at Waterloo University. This is atypical. This lack of coverage is often justified by the fact that cannabis does not have a drug identification number (DIN) in Canada. While we are quick to blame insurance companies for lack of coverage, it’s actually the employer who is the gatekeeper to providing this kind of coverage.
The new Shoppers and Loblaws coverage will extend to those who are using cannabis to “treat spasticity and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis (MS) and nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy for cancer patients,” and will pay out a maximum of $1,500 a year. There may also be room for additional coverage if employees have access to a Health Care Spending Account.
This means that coverage is limited to those with MS, as well as those who are receiving treatment for cancer. While this seems reasonable at face value, looking at patient data for those actually registered in the Health Canada program demonstrates these two categories represent only a small proportion of those using cannabis for medical purposes with physician support.
For example, things like arthritis, HIV/AIDS, spinal and other chronic pain, PTSD as well as anxiety and depression are some of the most common reasons people are prescribed medical cannabis, which is fully outside the scope of coverage. The skeptic in me just has to question whether this is part of the strategy.