Employers, benefits plans intervene in appeal over medical marijuana coverage

  • Share:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Print
  • Email
  • Text Size

A number of employers and benefits plans were in court this week in support of the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund’s appeal of a January 2017 decision by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ordering it to cover a member’s medical marijuana prescription.

In the latest development in the case, Skinner v. Board of Trustees of the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal heard arguments on Monday from counsel for the appellant, the board of trustees of the benefits plan and counsel for Gordon Skinner, as well as from intervener groups for both parties.

The groups included 12 large Atlantic Canada-based employers, including Irving Shipbuilding Inc., Medavie Blue Cross and Sobeys Inc., and a group of 12 other welfare benefits plans, according to Jonathan Zaid, the founder and executive director of the Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. In 2015, Zaid won the right to have his medical marijuana prescription covered under his group benefits plan.

Also intervening in the case was the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, which issued the original ruling ordering the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund to cover his medical marijuana prescription, and the National ME/FM Action Network, which represents people across Canada with chronic pain, particularly myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) and fibromyalgia.

The Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, which was present at the case but not an intervenor group, believes benefits plans should cover medical marijuana when medically authorized, says Zaid. “Specific to Mr. Skinner’s case and other patients like him, when medications are not tolerable or effective and a physician prescribes cannabis for medical purposes, we believe that it should be treated like any other medication and covered accordingly.”

In response to the original ruling in January, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association told Benefits Canada that it’s generally up to the employer to decide if it wants to cover medical marijuana, adding it didn’t expect the ruling to have an impact on other group plans. This week, Joan Weir, director of health and disability policy, noted the association’s original position remains: “That this decision has limited application to other benefits plans and is unique to the program plan and design of the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund, as well as the plan oversight practices of the trust fund’s board of trustees.”

Skinner, an elevator mechanic for ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ltd., got into a motor accident while on the job in 2010. His physical and mental injuries rendered him unable to work and qualified him for extended earnings disability benefits. At first, he took pain medication and antidepressants, but both proved ineffective. In the summer of 2012, he received a prescription for medical marijuana, which provided significantly more pain relief.

Initially, ThyssenKrupp’s auto insurer paid for the medical marijuana. But in May 2014, Skinner reached the policy’s limit of $25,000. So he approached his group benefits provider, the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund, which is administered by Manion Wilkins and Associates Ltd.

The trustees denied coverage, however, because medical marijuana doesn’t have a drug identification number since Health Canada hasn’t approved it. They also determined that Nova Scotia’s public plan should cover Skinner’s medical expenses, since they resulted from a compensable workplace accident. Skinner unsuccessfully sought reconsideration in May and June 2014.

In October 2014, Skinner filed a formal complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, in which he alleged “discrimination in the provision of services on account of physical and mental disability.” In February 2016, the commission referred the complaint to a board of inquiry.

On Jan. 30, 2017, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Tribunal concluded that Skinner’s union, the board of trustees of the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund, committed discrimination by denying benefits coverage for the prescribed medical marijuana. The fund appealed the case, which proceeded to a hearing on Oct. 2.

“Medical cannabis has successfully reduced my pain caused by an on-the-job accident. It is prescribed by my doctor and is a safer and more effective treatment than opioids,” said Skinner. “As the human rights tribunal originally ruled, medical cannabis is medically necessary and effective for my treatment and should be covered under the plan like other medications.”

The parties are now awaiting the appeal court’s decision in the matter.

Transcontinental Media G.P.