OTTAWA — The federal government’s effort to rein in the cost of reimbursing veterans for their medical marijuana appears to have failed as new figures show Ottawa shelled out a record $75 million in the last fiscal year.
And that is only the beginning: the Veterans Affairs Canada figures show the government is on track to spend nearly $100 million this year as more and more former service members ask the government to pay for their cannabis.
The growing use of medical marijuana by veterans — and the growing cost to taxpayers — comes despite an overhaul of the way the government reimburses ex-military personnel for pot in November 2016.
It was then that the Liberal government reduced the amount of marijuana it would cover from 10 grams per day to three. It also capped the amount it would pay at $8.50 per gram.
The government cited rising costs and a lack of scientific evidence about the drug’s medical benefits as the primary reasons for the new restrictions, which were met with anger and concern in the veterans’ community.
Veterans Affairs has paid for medical marijuana for veterans since 2008, following a court decision requiring reasonable access to the drug when authorized by a health-care practitioner.
But the number of clients — and the costs — started to explode in 2014 when regulatory changes at Health Canada and a new Veterans Affairs policy established the limit of 10 grams per day.
The government did see its costs decline to $50 million in 2017-18 from $63 million the previous year after the Liberals implemented their restrictions, but those savings were shortlived. The cost jumped to $75 million last year.
The growth can be traced to a more than doubling in the number of veterans asking the government to cover the drug, with 10,000 reimbursed in 2018-19 as compared to 4,500 in 2016-17.
Ten thousand veterans were reimbursed during the first four months of this year alone — 1,700 of whom have special medical exemptions that let them claim more than three grams per day.
Yet at the same time, the scientific evidence about the benefits of weed remains largely incomplete, says Jason Busse of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medical Cannabis Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
“We’re in a bit of a funny situation where cannabis has emerged on the market as a therapeutic agent not so much because we have rigorous evidence to fully understand the benefits and risks, but more through a series of legal challenges,” he said.
What isn’t funny, at least not to Busse, is use by veterans and non-veterans alike has continued to increase despite this lack of information as people search for ways to ease chronic pain, post-traumatic stress and other problems.
Many veterans using medical marijuana, such as Michael Blais, who hurt his back as a peacekeeper in Cyprus and is now president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, swear by its benefits and are angry with the government for cutting the amount it will cover.
“The consequences have been profound,” he said Thursday. “It took me two years to get off these frigging Percocets and now I’m back up to five a day. I mean what did they expect us to do? Our pain is relentless.”
But while cannabis is different in important ways, Busse compared the current situation to the start of the opioid epidemic, when painkillers were being prescribed without a full understanding of the potential consequences.
“Any time there’s a therapy that is being increasingly used where the evidence is limited, I think there should be reason for concern,” he said.
“There was this real hope the most powerful analgesics available might provide help for a lot of patients and you saw the prescribing go up considerably year after year. And again, the evidence was thin and it took time to let the evidence catch up.”
The federal government has stepped up funding to research medical marijuana in recent years. Some of the money has been directed toward McMaster, which is also home to a new chronic-pain research centre supported by Veterans Affairs. But the science will take time.
“There is some ongoing work that will hopefully be published in the next few years that will give greater insight,” Busse said. “Until we have better evidence, it’s very difficult to say if use of cannabis is helping, harming or simply ineffective.”
—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Achieving Mental Health is an Everyday Task
Achieving Mental Health is an Everyday Task
Duane (not his real name) shared, “I have dealt with my depression on my own for over 15 years, with the aid of anti-depressant drugs. I wasn’t even aware of the anxiety issues until they were pointed out to me just last year. Approximately 4 years ago I did seek therapy during one particularly low period in my mood. I carried on until April of last year when I had a suicide attempt that showed me I need additional help from outside resources including Mental Health, Red Deer PCN, and my company EFAP. Seeing how my suicide attempt impacted my immediately family was my impetus to get additional help.
I took the Red Deer PCN Happiness Basics program. I believe the course helped me to see that I have to make a daily practice of the skills I have been taught. I can’t just try and apply them when I’m feeling down. By doing this I have levelled off my moods; I am not walking on air but I seem to be avoiding the deep depressive periods I had in the past. I am thankful for this change in my daily life.
For anyone else struggling with depression, I would suggest they attend the Red Deer PCN groups and actively participate. Very good tools are provided but they are of no use if not implemented in your daily life. I will continue with one on one therapy. I am now taking the Anxiety to Calm group and I will apply the skills I learn every day! I also will continue the medications prescribed by my psychiatrist.”
Always remember achieving mental health is an everyday task!
About the Red Deer Primary Care Network:
We (RDPCN) are a partnership between Family Doctors and Alberta Health Services. Health professionals such as psychologists, social workers, nurses and pharmacist work in clinics alongside family doctors.
In addition, programs and groups are offered at the RDPCN central location. This improves access to care, health promotion, chronic disease management and coordination of care. RDPCN is proud of the patient care offered, the effective programs it has designed and the work it does with partners in health care and the community.
Alberta going after opioid manufacturers and distributors in class action lawsuit!
From the Province of Alberta
Alberta supports opioid class action lawsuit
Alberta will participate in the proposed class action, filed in B.C., to recoup costs of opioids from opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The action is brought on behalf of all federal, provincial and territorial governments and agencies that have paid health-care, pharmaceutical and treatment costs related to opioids from 1996 to the present.
In 2018, there were almost 800 fatal opioid-related overdoses and 4,200 calls to emergency services in Alberta.
“Responding to opioid overdoses has taken a tremendous toll on our families and communities, as well as adding to the demands on our health system. Our government will do our part to hold to account those who bear some responsibility for the wave of opioid addiction and overdose deaths we’re seeing.”
“Albertans have paid a high price for the irresponsible actions of opioid manufacturers and distributors. While we cannot bring back those we have lost, we can recover some of the enormous financial costs Albertans have paid and continue to pay. And we’ll take a balanced approach going forward, including more access to treatment and recovery services for people with addiction.”
“Our government is committed to ensuring our communities are safe, secure and protected. All Albertans have seen the terrible toll that opioid addiction has inflicted on our province and the individuals and families who suffer from the misery they create. Alberta will support the proposed national class action to hold manufacturers and distributors of opioids accountable for their role in the ongoing addiction crisis in Alberta and across Canada.”
Alberta’s action on opioids
The Alberta government is working to improve access to treatment and recovery services for Albertans dealing with addiction and their loved ones. These actions include:
- Committing $140 million to improving mental health and addiction care in the province, including $40 million specifically for opioid response.
- Creating 4,000 more publicly funded treatment spaces so more Albertans can access life-saving addiction treatment.
The Alberta government is developing legislation similar to B.C.’s Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, which allows that province to recover health-care costs on an aggregate, rather than an individual, basis using population-based evidence.
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