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Cannabis businesses explore offering health benefits

Close-up of half medic or doctor face with surgical masks isolated on white background with copy text space (Catalin205 Catalin205 / Istockphoto)
Close-up of half medic or doctor face with surgical masks isolated on white background with copy text space (Catalin205 Catalin205 / Istockphoto)
Staci Lehman EVERCANNABIS Correspondent
While working for a small business has many advantages, employees sometimes may lack health care. Insurance plans can be expensive and employers may conclude that good benefit packages are sometimes beyond the scope of what they can afford. That includes businesses in the marijuana industry. However, this view is starting to change, as more businesses are exploring how to provide coverage for their people. At the same time, insurance companies are learning more about the industry. “I think what’s happening is… (cannabis) is starting to be seen as a legitimate business,” said Drew Toomey, an independent consultant for the insurance industry. He’s based in Poulsbo but helps businesses throughout Washington State obtain coverage for companies and employees. Due to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws, large, prominent health insurers can’t comment whether they insure businesses in the marijuana industry, such as retailers or processors. Toomey is also bound by HIPAA laws, but because he technically doesn’t insure anyone directly, he can elaborate a little on different business types. In the last year, he has seen a definite increase in cannabis companies contacting him for help, sometimes out of increasing financial stability, sometimes just to offer another benefit to employees. “I think having the economy be on the uptick again, people seem to be making money again and want to invest it in maintaining a happy and productive workforce,” he said. Many of the cannabis businesses Toomey works with are small businesses who need help determining what plan works best for them. There is also a lot of confusion over whether to choose a plan under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) or find something outside of the public exchange environment. “It doesn’t cost anything to have a broker help out,” Toomey said. There currently aren’t any insurance companies that are specifically focusing on the cannabis industry. Companies that provide health insurance plans in the area, such as Kaiser Permanente and Premera Blue Cross couldn’t comment on what kinds of businesses purchase their plans, but a Premera spokesperson says the company doesn’t discriminate based on business type. “We are required to provide quotes to any group that meets the definition of a small business, as determined by the state Department of Licensing,” said Melanie Coon, Senior Communications Manager at Premera. According to Coon, the state’s definition of “small” is “more than one, but less than 49 employees.” Local cannabis retailers that offer benefits include Cinder and TreeHouse Club. TreeHouse Club Manager Shawn Durkin said health care has been an option since not long after the business opened in October 2015. “The owners really wanted to take care of us here,” said Durkin. “And as a result, we have really good (employee) retention.” Toomey said creating a customized insurance plan can help employers attract and retain people. TreeHouse Club pays the bulk of costs associated with the benefits, rather than passing it on to the 13 employees. It doesn’t provide dental insurance but offers a dental stipend. Many small businesses aren’t able to provide benefits and not all companies can fill the eligibility requirements. A company has to be able to pay 75 percent of employee premiums and have 75 percent of eligible employees willing to participate. “It’s a family-run business,” said Durkin, “To be a successful business, you have to have happy employees and to have happy employees they have to take care of themselves.”
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