A Sarnia doctor has launched a national patient advocacy campaign in hopes of attaining wider insurance coverage for medicinal cannabis.
Dr. Blake Pearson said he started #CoverCannabis to help patients who benefit from cannabis-based medicines but are forced to end treatment because of the cost, which in most cases is not covered by insurance plans.
Cannabis-based medications are effective, have significantly fewer side effects, and can eliminate the need for other medicines including benzodiazepines, antidepressants and highly addictive opioids, he said.
“I’m hearing stories of patients having to go back to opiates. We’re told (as doctors) to move away from (opiates) but the healthier, safer option isn’t covered. There are multiple diagnosis and multiple medications that are covered that could be replaced.”
Patients with cancer and multiple sclerosis usually qualify for group health plan coverage, but that’s only about 5% of his active roster of several thousand patients, he said.
Others with epilepsy, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis normally pay out of pocket, in part because many insurance plans won’t recognize products that lack a Drug Identification Number.
“The unjust part of it is that we have guidelines to switch people off opiates, and patients want to do this. But when they have to choose between groceries or medication that is covered – but possibly more harmful – they usually go for the medication that’s covered.”
Cannabinoids have shown to be a game changer in treating children with epilepsy, with some families paying up to $500 a month for the medicine, he said.
“My big thing is the vulnerable patients. Let’s start there.”
The need for legislative changes is especially important right now because the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “mental health tsunami” of anxiety, insomnia, depression and job loss, he said.
Pearson closed his family practice in 2018 to focus exclusively on cannabis-based medicine, becoming one of the first doctors in Canada to do so.
Many of the patients he sees in Sarnia are nursing home residents.
“It’s an interesting practice because you’re treating a variety of diagnoses,” he said.
Pearson invites others to share their story on social media using the hashtag #CoverCannabis and to write to their local MP and MPP urging change.