One of Canada's largest medical-cannabis producers says it will fund a Nova Scotia man's ongoing legal fight to have his marijuana prescription paid for by his employee-insurance plan – the latest move in a nationwide push by industry, patients and their advocates for more widespread cannabis coverage.
Aurora Cannabis Inc., a publicly traded grower based in Alberta, announced this week that it will bankroll elevator mechanic Gordon Skinner's coming defence this fall in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
Aurora executive vice-president Cam Battley said the original ruling, by Nova Scotia's human-rights board last year that found Mr. Skinner's medicine should be covered, should extend to other patients with similar plans.
"Patients have access to insurance reimbursement for a very broad range of prescription medicines," Mr. Battley said. "Patients can get reimbursement through their insurance programs for opioids – and you know that we have an opioid crisis in this country.
"When medical cannabis can provide an alternative and, in some cases, a safer alternative, it does make sense that it be treated the same way as other prescription products."
In Canada, only veterans, some first responders and a small number of private citizens get their medical cannabis covered by health-insurance providers. That's because Health Canada has not approved marijuana as a medicine, so insurers are less inclined to offer coverage.
John Conroy, an Abbotsford-based lawyer who was involved in a case that forced Health Canada to rewrite its medical-marijuana rules last year, said, if it stands, the Nova Scotia ruling could set a precedent for patients seeking coverage in other provinces with similar human-rights laws.
"The ruling is saying the insurance company mustn't discriminate on the basis of a drug," he said. "So, they're providing coverage for people with chronic pain who want opiates that could kill them, but they won't provide coverage for cannabis, which won't kill them."
Mr. Skinner successfully argued his own case before Nova Scotia's human-rights board last October after being denied coverage for cannabis three times by his insurer, the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Plan.
Mr. Skinner, from a community just outside Halifax, had argued that he faced discrimination when he was denied coverage for medical cannabis to treat chronic pain from an on-the-job car accident that forced him to retire years ago.
The provincial inquiry-board chair found that Mr. Skinner's plan unintentionally discriminated against him by not paying for his cannabis because it required a doctor's prescription.
The ruling stated that the insurance plan contravened the province's Human Rights Act, and must now cover his medical-marijuana expenses "up to and including the full amount of his most recent prescription."
The board found that Mr. Skinner's chronic pain has been undermanaged as a result of the denial of coverage, resulting in "profoundly negative effects on the complainant and his family."
The trustees of Mr. Skinner's plan have appealed the ruling and a hearing is set for Oct. 2. Mr. Battley said his company would continue supporting Mr. Skinner if that ruling is appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Jonathan Zaid, head of the patient advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, said the exclusion of cannabis coverage from many people's plans hinges on the drug not having been issued a unique number by Health Canada that identifies its manufacturer, product name, active ingredients, strength, pharmaceutical form and route of administration.
He also said he and other patient advocates were disappointed Ottawa made no mention of how it would increase the affordability of medical cannabis when it recently unveiled its legalization framework.
Advocates and licensed producers have long called on Canada to remove sales tax on medical cannabis, just like it has for other prescription drugs.