Ontario Unions Lead the Way for Employer Coverage of Medical Cannabis

Published on July 19, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union, has a reputation as a strong leader and a man of conviction, so when he told colleagues he thought the union should consider providing coverage of medical cannabis for employees, they took heed.

“It was discussed at a few meetings and nobody disagreed with him,” Ilana Goodman, administrator of employee relations at OPSEU, told Leafly. “Everyone thought it was a great thing to do.” Last month, OSEU began rolling out a new benefit providing medical cannabis coverage for its roughly 300 employees.

The union, which represents 130,000 public sector employees in Ontario, is among a growing number of employers providing coverage of medical cannabis in response to heightened demand and an expanding body of evidence supporting its therapeutic benefits.

The president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union, who has reviewed research on medical cannabis, urged employers to 'keep up with the times.'

“Cannabis can be an effective treatment for a variety of medical conditions,” Thomas, who has reviewed research on medical cannabis, said in a press release. He added that laws around medical cannabis continue to modernize, and urged employers to “keep up with the times.”

Before introducing the expanded coverage plan, union officials had to work out the logistics. It took them several months to determine which ailments would be covered and how much coverage would be provided. Ultimately, they decided not to limit the number of eligible conditions and to provide up to $3,000 coverage per year. Union officials also took steps to ensure the union could provide medical marijuana coverage for employees without breaching their confidentiality.

Officials attended educators’ presentations to determine whether it was better to have medical professionals or union officials educate union employees about cannabis. “Ultimately, we decided we didn’t need to place a heavy focus on educating employees; we want to leave that piece to the experts,” says Goodman. “From what we understand, most clinics you go to will provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision.”

Thomas, who is also a registered practical nurse, has said the union would consider providing medical cannabis coverage for its members by lobbying for it to be included in collective agreements. Goodman says that could happen “down the line” if coverage for union employees proves to be successful.

Local 625 of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), which represents 1,500 construction and skilled trades workers in Southwestern Ontario, has already taken that step. Its insurance provider now covers the cost of medical cannabis for eligible employees and union members.

Specifically, the expanded benefits plan covers medical cannabis for retired or permanently injured members. Members who are still working are covered only for medical cannabis oil products with reduced levels of THC. To ensure the system is not abused, the union requires members to pay for prescriptions up front and get reimbursed. Business manager Robert Petroni says that requirement will enable the union to determine who is prescribing the medical cannabis and how much is being prescribed. For other prescriptions, members don’t have to pay out of pocket.

This expanded medical coverage, announced in May, is the culmination of two years of consultations with various pharmacies and cannabis suppliers. Petroni says the union undertook those consultations in part because officials had heard through word of mouth that members were already using medical cannabis. Another motivation in expanding medical coverage, he says, was concern over the use of opioids. He hopes the introduction of medical cannabis coverage will reduce the use of opioids, which are highly addictive and a brutal health risk, with opioid overdoses killing at least 2,300 Canadians in 2016.

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In March, Canadian retailer Loblaw Companies announced it would provide medical cannabis coverage for its 45,000 employees. However, Loblaw only covers cannabis used to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis and the side effects of chemotherapy, and some industry insiders believe the company’s move to become the first big Canadian employer to cover medical cannabis was inspired in part by its business plans. Last fall, the retailer’s drug store division filed an application with the federal government to become a licensed producer of medical cannabis hoping only to distribute it.

Meanwhile, Joan Weir, director of health and disability policy at Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA), reports that no Canadian insurer provides medical cannabis coverage as part of a standard plan and cites several reasons for that.

First, cannabis doesn’t have a Drug Identification Number (DIN), which is issued by Health Canada for drugs that have been evaluated by a federal drug regulatory body and approved for sale in Canada. Weir told Leafly that the lack of DIN is “a major concern” for insurance providers.

Another factor is the potential effects of cannabis on employees’ performance. Insurers and employers are wondering, ‘How do we allow employees to use cannabis while ensuring they stay productive at work?’” she told Leafly. “There is no definitive test for impairment from cannabis. This contributes to wariness [among insurers and employers].”

OSEU sees impairment, whether from alcohol or any drug, as a single issue. Goodman says this issue is addressed in a fitness-for-duty brochure that union officials are now preparing.

LiUNA’s Petroni has no doubt that medical coverage of cannabis will become widespread in the not-so-distant future. “I think we’re a little bit ahead of the curve here and I think others are going to catch up,” he told the Chatham Daily News.

Weir of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association agrees. She says many insurers are waiting to see how legislation legalizing recreational marijuana, expected to be introduced next summer, will affect medical cannabis in terms of pricing and taxation before they consider including coverage of medical cannabis as standard practice. Nonetheless, she expects a few more insurers to provide coverage at the request of employers in the coming months.

OPSEU’s Goodman concurs. “We pride ourselves in being proactive and forward-thinking,” she told Leafly. “This is the wave of the future.”

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Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin is an author and journalist in Toronto. She has worked at several major media outlets, including the National Post and the CBC, and has written for dozens of publications, such as The New York Times, Time magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and The Globe and Mail.
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