Tom McMullen ran out of the medication that gave him his life back about two weeks ago, and he can’t get more. The Prospect Bay man is an authorized medical marijuana user and buys his drugs directly from Health Canada. But the bill for the 90 grams he’s allowed each month is 80 per cent of his monthly Canada Pension, his only source of income.
Mr. McMullen, 42, owes the agency more than $1,000 and has been told he won’t be sent more marijuana until he clears the debt. “If I had the money I’d pay my bill, but I live off $639 a month and Health Canada has no payment plan for anybody,” he said Thursday. “Here I am going down the road to be sick again.”
Mr. McMullen has had three spinal fusion surgeries and gets painful shingles in his legs. He began using marijuana about two years ago to deal with pain, nausea and lack of appetite while under the care of Dr. Mary Lynch, head of Halifax’s pain clinic at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre. “That was after six years of being with her and trying every medication,” he said. “If I didn’t have to take this road, the marijuana road, I wouldn’t be spending $517. I would take a pill that would be covered by social services.”
Mr. McMullen said marijuana has helped him eat, sleep and live like a normal person. “I haven’t eaten for three days now,” he said. “I’m starting to puke up my saliva. That’s just the way I was before I got on the medical marijuana.”
Unable to work, he was on a provincial disability pension until being approved for a federal pension. Mr. McMullen said he has owed Health Canada as much as $2,000 in the past but that the agency has never cut off his supply before. Megan Leslie, a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid, said her client shouldn’t be forced into such a position. “It breaks my heart that we have not been able to solve this problem for him when he’s been my client for two years now,” she said. “We’re still in the same place.” Ms. Leslie said there are two parts to the problem.
First, Health Canada has refused to negotiate a payment plan. She said it’s been tremendously difficult just to get in touch with department officials. She said the only real opportunity low-income medical marijuana users have to pay for the drug is when they’re reimbursed medical expenses after filing income tax returns, once a year. Health Canada insists on full payment each month. “That’s unacceptable,” Ms. Leslie said. “Even collection agencies do payment plans.”
A spokesperson for Health Canada said Thursday that all medical marijuana recipients are made aware of the payment policies. “A patient who is in arrears after three orders will receive a letter advising them that they can order one more shipment, but payment of their account must be made in full in order to receive any future shipments,” said Carole Saindon. “There are two other options available to patients who choose not to access the Health Canada product. They may either cultivate the marijuana for themselves, or have someone grow it for them,” she said. A packet of 30 seeds costs $20 plus tax and the dried marijuana is $5 plus tax per gram, according to a Health Canada fact sheet.
The second part of the problem is that the provincial Department of Community Services’ pharmacare program won’t cover medical marijuana because it is not considered a pharmaceutical and isn’t distributed through pharmacies, Ms. Leslie said. She has appealed unsuccessfully to have it considered a special need on par with orthotics, sunscreen and distilled water, all used by some clients and covered by the department.
Community Services is willing to pay the greater cost of the pharmaceutical treatments that have in the past made Mr. McMullen more ill, she said. As for his other living expenses, he says he manages to get by on very little. “I live with patient people,” he said. “I do as much as I can and they do as much as they can for me. I borrow every now and then from my mom.”
In February, The Canadian Press reported that almost half of the 278 patients that then used Health Canada marijuana had bills more than 90 days in arrears. They owed the agency a total of $168,879. At that time, 19 people had been refused more medical marijuana for failing to pay within 180 days.
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