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Manulife Financial Corp. is retooling its approach to medical cannabis, unveiling a new benefits program on Tuesday that will also offer patients access to virtual support from a trained team at Shoppers Drug Mart Corp.

Companies have been slow to offer coverage for medical marijuana in their group benefits policies, and Manulife is trying to change that by treating cannabis more like any other drug and adding a pharmacy to the process to help assist patients and control usage. The move also sees Shoppers elbow its way into the nascent cannabis space, inserting itself into the existing cannabis dispensing practices that today bypass pharmacies altogether.

“Right now, what happens is that if a patient receives a medical document to use marijuana, they’re on their own from there,” said Donna Carbell, senior vice-president of group benefits at Manulife. “This program will allow the patient to have a fully coordinated care approach. I think this will provide a great deal of comfort to patients and employers.”

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Once a patient is approved to use medical cannabis by their doctor and qualifies for Manulife’s insurance coverage, Shoppers will step in to help the patient choose the right strain and dosage for their needs, facilitate the dispensing of the product, coordinate the delivery to the patient’s home and offer continuing support by phone and e-mail. Shoppers, which has formed a small team of pharmacists dedicated to cannabis, would earn a fee from the patient’s employer for providing these services.

The program is available starting in September. To begin, Manulife’s new plan will offer coverage for cannabis use to patients suffering from three conditions “where there’s been evidence supporting cannabis use,” said Ms. Carbell: involuntary muscle spasms for those suffering from multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting for those undergoing chemotherapy and chronic neuropathic pain. But it’s only available to employees of companies that add cannabis to their drug plan.

Manulife has been offering coverage for medical marijuana through what’s called a health-care-spending account. But most insurance plans don’t include these accounts, and that’s one reason that “the uptake has been very, very small” among employers, Ms. Carbell said. She declined to say how many and which companies have offered this to their employees and also didn’t know how much in cannabis-related claims had been processed by Manulife to date.

Shoppers declined to make an executive available for an interview. Neither Manulife nor Shoppers explained how this group of pharmacists has been trained on cannabis.

Marijuana growers processed 296,702 client registrations for medical cannabis in Canada, as of March, according to Health Canada. Too little insurance coverage and a lack of clinical research are two hurdles that producers say are hindering growth.

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