The day cannabis was legalized in Alberta was a day of great rejoicing for some, and utter confusion for others. Proponents of the drug were elated to have their longstanding claims of the safety and benefits of cannabis validated. For many others, particularly employers, the legalization created more questions than answers.
One of the big questions for employers was how cannabis fits into their group benefits plan – if at all.
Jesse Monck, director of group sales with Alberta Blue Cross, confirms that their organization has been approached by employers looking for information about cannabis and group health policies. “With the recent legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada, the topic has become quite prevalent. More and more employers are inquiring about potentially covering medicinal cannabis under their group plans.”
Alberta Blue Cross is one of the most popular benefit providers in Alberta. Monck explains, “Over 1.7 million Albertans, including over 5,700 Alberta employers, are covered through Alberta Blue Cross plans. With over 97 per cent of all claims direct billed by providers at the point of service, Alberta Blue Cross offers unparalleled convenience for plan members. Its state-of-the-art claim adjudication system allows it to have one of the fastest turnaround times in the benefits industry. It offers industry-leading plan management and stays informed on the latest in health care by consistently monitoring the provincial, territorial and federal environment to identify benefit trends and potential impacts on its customers. To reinforce service to plan members, it maintains dedicated call centres for service providers—a value-added service beyond any of its competitors in the industry. Alberta Blue Cross has a local presence and a national reach, servicing Alberta-based employers with employees across the province, country and around the globe.”
Does Alberta Blue Cross cover medical cannabis?
“As a standard product, no,” Monck explains. “However, we do offer group coverage for medicinal cannabis on an optional basis, with specific criteria and limitations for coverage. If an employer provides a Health Care Spending Account (HCSA) to its employees, coverage for medical cannabis can also be provided through that. It’s important to note that for items to be covered through a HCSA, the item must meet Revenue Canada guidelines (meaning the item must qualify as a medical expense under the Canadian Income Tax Act).”
Monck continues, “It’s important that every employer understand the difference between recreational cannabis and medicinal cannabis as it pertains to their group benefit plan. Coverage under group plans is limited to medicinal cannabis only and even within that scope, optional coverage under group benefit plans is typically limited to select medical conditions.”
How does cannabis fit into allowances for mental health treatment and disablement?
“Disability in the context of a contract of insurance is based on establishing if a medical condition prevents a person from performing the duties of a job or occupation,” says Monck. “If it was deemed the effect of cannabis impaired a person’s function to the extent that they could not perform the duties of the job or occupation, it would be considered a disability.
“It should be noted that we do not differentiate cannabis addictions from other types of addictions such as opioids or alcohol. Our approach to managing these claims is to facilitate appropriate treatment and rehabilitation interventions aimed at overcoming the addiction with the ultimate goal of returning a person back to work in a safe and sustainable fashion.”
It is very prudent for business owners to understand if and/or how medical cannabis is covered in their group plans for their employees. However, if you are a small business that has yet to set up a group plan, or if you are a solo-entrepreneur in search of benefits for yourself and your family, there are a few things you must know.
Tom Castonguay, CFP, president, Shelter Bay Financial weighs in.
“Group coverage is obtained without medical, lifestyle, or health questions, so recreational smokers of tobacco and cannabis are covered if they are under an employer-sponsored plan.”
This differs from individual policies, where tobacco smokers face higher rates than non-smokers. In the past, this applied to cannabis smokers too.
A few years ago, many of the top insurance agencies in Canada, including Empire Life, Great West Life, and Sun Life, switched from lumping tobacco and cannabis smokers under one umbrella and allowed individual users to enjoy casual recreational cannabis without financial penalty. While the definitions of that usage differ widely among insurance providers, this action allowed for individual uninsured cannabis users to obtain an affordable policy, and for recreational users to have their smoker-rated policy reviewed.
Castonguay continues, “Employers have a lot to consider when it comes to their group policies; employers need to know how their coverage treats medical cannabis. Every underwriter has a different policy, so a lot of homework must be done to find the best policy for each situation. A broker takes all the guesswork out of the equation.”
The financial advisor explains the difference between an agency and a brokerage.
“There are two ways to get coverage for your business. The first is to directly approach a company, like Manulife, Alberta Blue Cross, Sun Life, or Empire Life. The second way, which is ideal for smaller businesses and solo-entrepreneurs, is to speak with a broker. A broker does not work directly for a life insurance company but acts more like a ‘freelance agent.’ Brokers sell the policies of every underwriter in Canada, and therefore compare all the options on your behalf and make a recommendation.
“This is particularly important for small/solo-run corporations or startups where budgets are tight. Many brokers have access to policies specifically designed for smaller/one-person operations. These policies group similar small businesses together to provide lower rates and more stable renewals. These special policies are not widely marketed and may only be available through a broker.”
Not everyone is into cannabis culture; the legalization has left many employers looking for more information on how the new laws affect their companies. When it comes to cannabis and group benefits, however, there are clear answers. If you are an employer or entrepreneur with questions, don’t guess at the answers. Contact your benefits provider today or contact a broker or agent to set you up with the coverage you need.
Cannabis in the Workplace
The Government of Alberta recognizes that, “Worker impairment, regardless of the cause, could create a work site health and safety hazard.” Employers and employees are obligated by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) to address and control impairment concerns.
It is further noted that causes of impairment are not strictly related to drugs and alcohol. Listed impairment conditions include: medical conditions, fatigue, temporary stressors such as grief or financial worries, and poor mental health. Recreational cannabis use is also listed as an impairment when its use endangers the safety of the employee and others.
On its site Alberta.ca, the Government of Alberta says, “Employers may encourage workers to disclose known impairment that may affect workplace health and safety without needing to disclose the cause of the impairment. The risk of injury or illness increases when a hazard is not identified or controlled;” and for recreational cannabis, “Workplace policies should ensure workers understand their expectations around consumption.”
Employers are urged to “respond to situations of impairment fairly and without judgement.”