Tag Archives: University of Toronto

Changing coverage for medical marijuana

Health Canada statistics reveal the number of Canadians with prescriptions for medical marijuana more than tripled between the fall of 2015 and 2016 from 30,537 people to nearly 100,000 individuals. And with legalized marijuana for recreational use slated to come into effect July 1, 2018, it is expected that use of the drug will soar.

In response to the proliferation of legal marijuana use, life and health insurance companies have had to rethink several aspects of their pricing and coverage including whether or not:

  • Individual life insurance applicants using marijuana must pay smokers’ rates
  • Benefit plans will reimburse clients for the cost of medical marijuana.

Smoker/Non-smoker rates
Until the last several years, marijuana users applying for individual life insurance had to pay smokers’ rates. For example, a man in his 30s could expect to pay about two to three times as much for a policy than a non-smoker. A smoker in his 40s could expect to pay three to four times as much.

Insurance companies charged this massive price increase because smokers have a much higher risk of death than non-smokers. In addition, smokers often have other health problems like poor diets or an inactive lifestyles.

Within the last two years, the following insurers in Canada announced their plans to begin underwriting medical and recreational marijuana users as non-smokers, including:

  • Sun Life
  • BMO Life Insurance
  • Canada Life
  • London Life
  • Great-West Life

Sun Life is taking the most comprehensive approach, saying it will treat anyone who consumes marijuana but doesn’t smoke tobacco as a non-smoker. BMO Life Insurance is more restrained, limiting non-smoker status to people using only two marijuana cigarettes per week. Canada Life, London Life, and Great-West Life issued a joint statement which said that “clients who use marijuana will no longer be considered smokers, unless they use tobacco, e-cigarettes or nicotine products.”

This change won’t affect group benefits as coverage is not individually underwritten. An article on Advisor.ca includes a chart comparing where a series of major Canadian life insurers stand on pot use.

Drug plan coverage
So, what about coverage for medical marijuana under your benefits plan?

If your coverage includes a health care spending account (HCSA), you are in luck. Medical marijuana is an eligible expense under HCSAs because the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) allows it to be claimed as a medical expense on income tax returns. Note that only marijuana is eligible under CRA medical exempt items, not vaporizers or other items used to consume it.

However, even though physicians are prescribing cannabis and people are using it for medical reasons, it is not currently covered under almost all traditional drug benefits. That’s because Health Canada hasn’t reviewed it for safety and effectiveness or approved it for therapeutic use the way it reviews and approves all other prescription drug products.

This means marijuana hasn’t been assigned a drug identification number (DIN), which the insurance industry usually requires before a drug can be covered. Until there is research that can be reviewed by Health Canada, marijuana will remain an unapproved drug and unlikely to be covered by your plan.

However several recent events suggest that it may be only a matter of time until group and individual drug plans offer at least limited coverage for medicinal marijuana.

Jonathan Zaid, a student at the Umiversity of Waterloo is the executive director of the group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. He has a rare neurological condition that causes constant headaches, along with sleep and concentration problems. Zaid said he was sick for five years before even considering medical cannabis. He tried 48 prescription medications, along with multiple therapies, all of which were covered by his insurer without question – except for medical cannabis.

After eight months of discussions, the student union (who administers the student health plan) came to the conclusion that they should cover it because it supports his academics and should be treated like a medication.

Similarly, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Board ruled in early 2017 that Gordon Skinner’s employee insurance plan must cover him for the medical marijuana he takes for chronic pain following an on-the-job motor vehicle accident. Inquiry board chair Benjamin Perryman concluded that since medical marijuana requires a prescription by law, it doesn’t fall within the exclusions of Skinner’s insurance plan.

Perryman said the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Plan contravened the province’s Human Rights Act, and must cover his medical marijuana expenses “up to and including the full amount of his most recent prescription.”

And at least one major company is covering employees for medical marijuana in very specific circumstances. In March 2017, Loblaw Companies Limited and Shoppers Drug Mart announced in an internal staff memo that effective immediately it will be covering medical pot under the employee benefit plan up to a maximum of $1,500 per year for about 45,000 employees.

Claims to insurance provider Manulife “will be considered only for prescriptions to treat spasticity and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis and nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy for cancer patients,” said Basil Rowe, senior vice-president of human resources at Loblaw Companies Ltd., owner of Shoppers, in the memo.

“These are the conditions where the most compelling clinical evidence and literature supports the use of medical marijuana in therapy,” explained Loblaw/Shoppers spokesperson Tammy Smitham. “We will continue to review evidence as it becomes available for other indications (conditions).”

Since cannabis does not yet have a Drug Identification Number recognized by insurers, it isn’t covered under typical drug spending. However, it will be covered through a special authorization process where plan members will pay and submit their claim after, said Smitham.

The move could trickle down to other Canadian employers and their benefit plans and even set a precedent, Paul Grootendorst, an expert on insurance and reimbursement and director of the division of social and administrative pharmacy in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto told the Toronto Star.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

You may be only as old as you feel

By Sheryl Smolkin

An interesting new study* by a University of Toronto team led by psychology professor Alison Chasteen reveals that how you feel about getting old can affect your sensory and cognitive functions.

The study published in the December issue of the American Psychological Association Journal was based on testing of 301 participants between ages 56 and 96. Researchers considered the interview subjects’ views on aging, how much they believe they can hear and remember plus their actual performance in both areas.

Standard hearing and recall tests were administered. For example, study participants saw a list of 15 words on a computer screen and heard a series of different words through headphones. Subsequently they were asked to write down as many words as they could remember. In addition, they completed a third test by listening to five words they were asked to recall after a five minute delay.

They were also asked to answer questions and react to phrases describing how they viewed their own ability to hear and remember. For example, participants were asked to agree or disagree with sentences like, “I am good at remembering names” or “I can easily have a conversation on the telephone.”

In addition they were asked to envisage 15 situations and rank how worried they are about each based on age. One example was to imagine they were involved in a car accident where it was unclear who was at fault and specify how concerned they were that they would be held responsible because they were elderly.

“Those who held negative views about getting older and believed they had challenges with their abilities to hear and remember things, also did poorly on the hearing and memory tests,” Chasteen said.

“That’s not to say all older adults who demonstrate poor capacities for hearing and memory have negative views of aging,” she continued. “It’s not that negative views on aging cause poor performance in some functions, but there is simply a strong correlation between the two when a negative view impacts an individual’s confidence in the ability to function.”

She noted that the perceptions older people have about their abilities to function and how they feel about aging must be considered when determining their cognitive and sensory health. She recommends educating older people about ways in which they can influence their aging experience, including providing them with training exercises to enhance their cognitive and physical performance, and dispelling stereotypes about aging.

“Knowing that changing how older adults feel about themselves could improve their abilities to hear and remember will enable the development of interventions to improve their quality of life,” she concludes.

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*This blog is based on materials provided by the University of Toronto.

Jun 1: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

I’m back at my desk, after a super 4-day weekend visiting my daughter’s family in Ottawa. Although we just missed the end of the tulip festival, all the lilacs were in bloom and residents of Canada’s capital were running, biking, having picnics and eating on patios. There is no doubt that summer is the time when Canadians take advantage of the longer days and beautiful weather to move both their social life and their fitness routines outdoors.

Sarah Snowden blogging on Canadian Living identifies five inspirational blogs that deliver a demonstrated authority and passion for a healthy, active lifestyle. We reproduce her top picks below.

  1. BC Runner
    Vancouver-based freelance writer and running advocate Usha Krishnan dishes up tips on everything from jogging, sprinting, and breathing techniques to running in the rain. It has a user-friendly design with useful diagrams and inspiring photos.
  2. Bicycling Blogger
    Cycling enthusiast Kevin Rokosh drives home tips on all things cycle including nutrition, racing, recovery, training, equipment — even “bikertainment”. For those looking to take their cycling up a notch, you will find this site takes a not-so-serious yet informative approach to cover all the bases.
  3. Gluten-Free Guidebook
    Travel journalist Hilary Davidson serves up reviews of restaurants, shops, hotels and products targeted at travelers with celiac disease (in which gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, damages the small intestine), and gluten intolerance. Avid travelers seeking a gluten-free experience will love this well-written account of Canadian and international destinations – you’ll be surprised by the number of establishments that are gluten-free.
  4. Cyclemania
    Founded in 2004 by Les and Helen Faber of Ottawa, Cyclemania features the pair’s exploration of scenic routes and provides a broad overview of cycle related issues. The blog imparts invaluable information on community, equipment, racing, safety, cycle experiences abroad and at home, and even spinning through posts, forums, videos and vibrant photos.
  5. Teaching Kids Yoga
    Toronto yoga teacher Aruna Humphrys spreads good karma with tips on helping kids to relax, be healthy, and enhance relationships through the practice of yoga. Posts inform readers about the latest yoga-related DVDs, books, and teaching techniques for teachers and parents alike.

And finally, Breaking barriers: Canadian-Muslim women and fitness is an interesting discussion of how barriers that have kept some Muslim women from participating in organized sports are finally crumbling in Canada. Shireen Ahmed who played on the University of Toronto’s varsity soccer squad is featured.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information with us on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Canada needs more CPP says lawyer Ari Kaplan

By Sheryl Smolkin

Click here to listen
Click here to listen

As part of the ongoing series of podcast interviews on savewithspp.com, today I’m talking to lawyer Ari Kaplan, a partner in the Pension and Benefits Group of the Toronto law firm Koskie, Minsky, L.L.P.

Ari is the author of Canada’s leading textbook on pension law, and he has acted as counsel in some of Canada’s most widely known pension cases before the Supreme Court of Canada. In addition, he teaches pension law as an adjunct professor of law at both the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School.

In his spare time, Ari heads up licensing and publishing at Paper Bag Records, a leading, independent record label and artist management company also based in Toronto.

Today, we are going to talk about the Canada Pension Plan. In the ongoing national debate regarding how Canadians can be encouraged to save more for retirement, Ari is a staunch advocate for an expansion to the Canadian Pension Plan.

Welcome, Ari, and thanks for talking to me today.

My pleasure, Sheryl. Thanks for having me.

Q: How many Canadians currently have workplace pension plans?
A: Well, that’s a good question to put everything in perspective. Over 60% of working Canadians actually have no workplace pension plan, and they must rely solely on CPP and their own personal savings for their retirement income. 

Q: Why do you think that an enhanced Canada Pension Plan is the best way to give Canadians a more robust retirement income?
A: Very simple. It’s currently the only universal and mandatory savings scheme in the country. It’s portable from job to job. If you’re a student, you can work for the summer in British Columbia and then come back to a full-time job in Ontario, and your CPP credits will go with you. Also, it doesn’t just cover employees. It applies to self-employment, which most workplace pension plans don’t.

Q: As early as 2008, industry guru Keith Ambachtsheer wrote a C.D. Howe Institute commentary about the benefits of enhancing the Canada Pension Plan. Yet, in December 2013, the conservative government in several Canadian provinces voted against this proposal. Why do you think this occurred?
A: Every respected economist in the country supports a CPP expansion. The reason why the current government did not support it is political, not principled.

There was political pressure from business lobby groups who did not want to be forced to contribute employer revenue toward their employees’ retirement. There was political pressure from the financial services lobby, because they do not benefit at all when the retirement savings of Canadians is held in the CPP Trust Fund.

And finally, there’s fear among Canadian voters, who’ve been led to believe that anything opposed by business must be bad for them, too. Some of them also don’t want to be forced to save for retirement.

Q: Instead of expanding the CPP, the late finance minister, Jim Flaherty and the provinces endorsed pooled registered pension plan legislation as the way to encourage Canadians to save more for retirement. What are the key features of PRPPs?
A: Good question. PRPPs are basically like voluntary employer-sponsored group RRSPs. The funds are locked in, so it resembles a registered defined contribution plan. Your funds can also be ported to another plan and there are survivor benefits. So, it’s basically like an “RRSP-plus.”

Q: Why do you think that PRPP’s are not the answer?
A: Well, I think PRPPs are just a prime example of what I said earlier ­­­– political lobbying by business and the financial industry.

  1. The employer is not required to contribute a dime even if the company voluntarily sponsors a PRPP.
  2. An employee can opt out, or voluntarily set their contribution rate to zero, which gives zero benefit to the employee.
  3. There’s very little benefit security. Like I said, it’s like a DC plan, so you get to choose member-directed investment funds. If you don’t invest your money well, then you won’t get a good pension.
  4. The cost structure is really not that much different than a 500-member group RRSP. The management expense ratio (MER) will be much higher under a PRPP than under a large workplace pension plan or, for that matter, under CPP, where the efficiencies of scale are such that the costs are very, very, very low.
  5. It will create a huge windfall to insurance companies and other financial institutions who manage these funds, because there’s very few cost controls. There are lots of problems in group RRSPs with so-called “hidden fees” and there’s no indication that that will change with PRPPs.

I can go on, but I think you get the idea.

Q: Groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business say that required employer contributions to an expanded CPP would amount to a significant payroll tax that could slow down economic growth. How would you respond to this statement?
A: To be quite blunt, this is a false and misleading statement. Anyone who tells you it’s a tax is not telling you the truth. This is employee money. It goes into a pension fund. It then goes back to the employee.

Q: Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne’s government is currently holding consultations on the design of an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. What are some of the key features of that plan?
A: At the end of December of last year, the Ontario government introduced the first reading of the bill for the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan intended to commence at the beginning of 2017. The reason for the delay period is because there’s hope that the next federal government may agree enhance CPP, which could make the ORPP redundant.

But the key features are that it’s a mandatory plan. It’s like an adjunct to CPP. So, it would be mandatory in all Ontario workplaces, except where the employer already has a workplace pension plan for its workforce, and it would be integrated with the CPP.

Q: Several other provinces, like PEI, may jump on the same bandwagon, so why do we still need a national CPP enhancement?
A: Well, it would better if the federal government came on board to make it nationwide. I mean if we just have it province by province, then it’ll be more of a patchwork. This could influence inter-provincial mobility. We don’t want to discourage full inter-provincial mobility by Canadians.

Q: Well – and, of course, the other issue is – just like pension legislation across the country, which is similar, but actually very different when it comes to the details – we run the risk of getting ten or 11 completely different plans.
A: And that would result in over-regulation and an increase in transaction costs although the whole point of this is to minimize and optimize the costs of running the fund — which is why CPP is good model.

CPP is viewed as one of the best universal, mandatory state-sponsored pension plans in the world. It would be a shame for us to have to rely on province-by-province, patchwork participation in such a scheme.

Also, you know, at the end of the day, this is really something that benefits all Canadians, regardless of what age or generation they are in. One way or the other, taxpayers will be taking care of older Canadians who are poor. It’s better that Canadians have their own resources to take care of themselves; and that’s an optimal use of taxpayer resources.

So, I just really think it’s a good idea, and I really think that this is the ballot question for the upcoming federal election this year. We saw this 50 years ago when CPP was introduced. I believe this year there will be a renaissance of that issue.

Q: Thanks, Ari. It was great to talk to you.
A: My pleasure, Sheryl. Be well.

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This is an edited version of the podcast posted above which was recorded on February 3, 2014.

Free tuition for seniors

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK
SHUTTERSTOCK

If you always wanted to go to college or university and life got in the way, it may not be too late. Some schools like Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University have eliminated tuition waivers for seniors due to provincial budget cuts. However, at least one Saskatchewan University plus several other well-known Canadian schools do not charge seniors for tuition.

For example, the University of Saskatchewan waives tuition fees for people 65 years of age or older, who are provincial residents and who register in the following types of courses and programs:

  • Regular sessions: To a maximum of 15 credits
  • Evening or off-campus courses: To a maximum of 15 credits
  • Intersession and summer session: To a maximum of 6 credits
  • Non-Credit extension programs

At the University of British Columbia, BC residents who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents aged 65 years or over during the session in which they are registered are not assessed application, tuition, or student fees. However, there are tuition fees levied for some programs where facilities and resources are limited.

Tuition and fee waivers apply for seniors who meet residency and age requirements at the University of Manitoba.  Although most of costs are waived for senior students, they still must to submit an application form and meet entrance requirements.

York University’s deal applies to Canadian citizens or permanent residents whether they are registered in a degree course, as a visiting student or simply auditing a program.

Ryerson also offers free tuition to students over 60 for four-year undergraduate programs and McMaster University in Hamilton has a similar program for undergraduates over 65. In addition, McMaster reduces fees by 50 per cent for seniors registered in Continuing Education courses.  However, you are out of luck if the program you want is at University of Toronto, as only nominal ancillary fees are waived for older students.

Dalhousie University encourages learning opportunities and professional development by offering senior students 65 years of age or over who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents at the time of registration and are enrolled in an undergraduate non-professional degree program a senior citizen waiver. This waives only the tuition portion of the fees. The student must pay any incidental fees.

Other colleges and universities across country also offer seniors a tuition break. For more information, contact the school of your choice.

I got an LLM. in the mid-90s, 20 years after I was called to the Bar, so embarking on another rigorous degree program at this stage is not at the top of my “To Do list.”  But if I ever get around to retiring and have some time on my hands, I will definitely be tempted to audit opera, music, theatre and other general interest courses.

Do you have tips for seniors who want to fulfill their lifelong dream to get a university degree? Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

10-Oct Thanksgiving Paying it forward: Volunteer opportunities
17-Oct Halloween Cheap and cheerful costumes, snacks
24-Oct Charity How to raise money for almost anything on Indiegogo