Should Canada produce more medicine amid ongoing shortages? Trudeau isn’t sure
By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa
As Canada faces an ongoing shortage of children’s medications, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he doesn’t know if ramping up domestic production of pharmaceuticals is the right approach to addressing the problem.
“I don’t know offhand if it is the right thing for Canada to be starting producing these particular pills or whether it’s just a question of getting more reliable supply chains and agreements out there,” Trudeau said last week in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Canada has been experiencing a nationwide shortage of children’s pain medications for months, leaving parents scrambling to manage their children’s fever and pain as rates of respiratory syncytial virus and influenza skyrocket.
The drug shortage has led to some calls for Canada to invest more in its pharmaceutical production capacities for essential medications.
However, Trudeau said that might not be the best use of taxpayer dollars.
“If we had a big orange shortage in Canada, people might be shouting, ‘Okay, we need to make them more greenhouses so we can grow more oranges in Canada,'” the prime minister said.
“That might not be the best way to spend our money.”
Trudeau said he’s focused on solving the problem of drug shortages using the most efficient approach, even if that means sourcing medications from other places in the world.
The example Trudeau used to illustrate the difference between importing and producing domestically was too much of an apples-to-oranges comparison for the NDP’s health critic Don Davies.
“To compare oranges to essential medication that people may need to stay alive … that’s a terrible analogy,” he said.
Davies said Canada needs a national strategy for pharmaceuticals that would both promote a strong private sector and include a publicly owned manufacturer. “Do we want to be vulnerable to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of global supply chains and decisions made by the private sector?”
For medications that are in short supply, the federal government has been relying on imports. Health Canada has brought in nearly 1.9 million bottles of foreign products and “more is coming,” a spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
She said the federal department is “using all tools at its disposal to help alleviate the shortage” of pain medications and “proactively working with companies to facilitate the importation of foreign products.”
But pharmacists have warned that the emergency imports may not be enough.
“Most of the pharmacies are doing purchase limits, one quantity per person, keeping it behind the counter, telling people to buy only what they need,” Shelita Dattani, vice president of pharmacy affairs for the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada, said last month.
Canada’s experience with the pandemic and vaccine procurement has raised questions about how much the country should rely on global supply chains for essential goods.
Jillian Kohler, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, said governments need to be much more engaged when it comes to ensuring reliable supplies of pharmaceutical products.
She said the shortage of children’s pain medication speaks to the country’s “very problematic” dependence on sources outside Canada’s borders and on the private sector.
“We need to think of health products as health security, as something that’s a national-security issue,” she said. “And relying on the private sector, whether it’s domestic or external to Canada, is risky.”
Davies said creating a public manufacturer of pharmaceutical products wouldn’t be an entirely new idea. The federal government used to own Connaught Laboratories, which developed and produced vaccines as well as insulin. The laboratory was sold off to the private sector in the 1980s.
However, University of Toronto professor Christopher Rutty said in an email that the lab was not focused on the development and production of chemically-derived pharmaceuticals such as pain medication.
Kohler said public manufacturing has not been historically viewed as a cost-effective approach of producing medications. She said it’s time for a shift in thinking.
“Governments have a responsibility for the health of their populations. And old models don’t work, as we’ve seen. So we need to rethink: how do we ensure security for our population’s health needs?”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2022.
Bell CEO warns ‘interventionist’ regulations could lead telcos to curtail investments
Mirko Bibic, president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada speaks during a CRTC hearing for Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2019-57, Review of mobile wireless services, in Gatineau, Que., on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
By Sammy Hudes in Toronto
Bell Canada president and CEO Mirko Bibic warned Monday that increased regulation in Canada’s telecommunications industry could prompt companies to scale back investment and make cuts to service for underserved communities.
Speaking at a lunch hosted by Canadian Club Toronto, Bibic took aim at the federal government and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for a shift “towards more micromanagement of Canada’s telecom industry.”
He said some investments are “impossible to justify” when big companies are required to provide smaller competitors access to their privately built networks at heavily discounted rates.
“Our industry is quite highly regulated and we appear to be moving rapidly towards even more intervention,” said Bibic, adding that such an approach “generates market uncertainty.”
“Our regulator’s telling us that we have to give access to the new networks that our people, our partners and our capital are building and they’re telling us the rates we have to charge for that access. That’s not how a competitive market should be regulated. [It] certainly doesn’t strengthen the quality or resiliency of the networks and services you all rely on.”
Earlier this year, Canada’s telecommunications regulator announced it would lower some wholesale internet rates by 10 per cent and review whether big companies should provide smaller competitors access to their fibre-to-the-home networks.
The CRTC said the move was aimed at improving internet speeds and bolstering competition.
That came after federal Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne directed the regulator to implement new rules to enhance consumer rights, affordability, competition and universal access, which included a requirement for improved wholesale internet rates.
The CRTC also stated earlier this month that major telecoms would have 90 days to negotiate access agreements for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). That followed a policy set in 2021 allowing regional cellphone providers to compete as MVNOs across Canada using networks built by large companies.
But Bibic urged Ottawa and the CRTC to ensure Canada’s four major telecom companies have incentives to invest and differentiate themselves from each other, which he said would lead to more customer value. He warned of “unintended consequences” if regulation continues to ramp up.
“There comes a point where if government is too interventionist, all of us are going to have to scale back those investments, which is not good for consumers and businesses,” he said.
“If you’ve got to start cutting back on capital, what gets cut first? Does the GTA get cut first? Or does some northern community in Ontario get cut first? We know the answer to that.”
Bibic also pushed back against a “prevailing but false narrative” surrounding the state of competition in Canada’s telecom industry, as well as cellphone and internet prices.
A report released in February by Wall Communications Inc., which conducts an annual comparison of Canadian phone and internet prices to other jurisdictions, found Canada still had among the highest prices internationally for cellphone and broadband service in 2022.
But Bibic noted that despite rising inflation, wireless prices in Canada have declined eight per cent over the past two years and almost 25 per cent since January 2020.
“We’ve all been in the U.S. right? The service is terrible. So there is a quality dimension to it,” he told the crowd.
“Too often, the prevailing narrative is based on these studies that by definition create these average baskets of goods so that there’s some semblance of trying to compare prices across the world, but the baskets of goods don’t actually reflect what people are buying today.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
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StatCan report casts clouds on claims of a widespread labour shortage in Canada
A new report is casting doubt on the idea that Canada is facing a widespread labour shortage, bolstering arguments by labour economists who say the country has more than enough workers. A sign for help wanted is pictured in a business window in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa
A new report is casting doubt on the idea that Canada is facing a widespread labour shortage and bolsters the arguments by some labour economists that high job vacancies aren’t due to a shortage of workers.
The Statistics Canada analysis finds there are no labour shortages for jobs that require high levels of education, suggesting other factors, such as a mismatch in skills and pay, might be to blame for a high number of empty positions.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, labour shortages have grasped headlines from coast to coast as businesses have advertised more job openings than ever. Job vacancies skyrocketed to more than one million at one point last year.
The perceived countrywide labour shortage has put pressure on governments to help businesses find workers, including by increasing Canada’s immigration targets.
But the report published this week compares unemployment and job vacancies by education level and paints a more nuanced picture of the labour market.
“Things look really different depending on whether you look at vacancies that require a high level of education, versus those that require a high school diploma or less,” said René Morissette, the assistant director of social analysis and modelling division at the federal agency.
The report, which looked at labour data between 2016 and 2022, found for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher education, there were always fewer jobs available than people to fill them.
For example, there were 113,000 vacant positions requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher education in the fourth quarter of 2022, but 227,000 individuals who held such an education were unemployed during the same period.
But for positions that required a high school diploma or less, the shortage of workers only started in the third quarter of 2021.
Morissette said the findings don’t mean that there are no labour shortages in some markets, but shortages may not be as extensive as previously assumed.
“It’s certainly conceivable that there are local shortages in some in some positions,” Morissette said. “What we’re saying is that the shortages may not be as widespread as initially assumed in the early discussions about the high vacancy rates in Canada.”
For employers trying to fill vacancies that require a post-secondary education, the report says their hiring challenges cannot be attributed to a lack of workers available with those qualifications.
Instead, the difficulties may be the result of a mismatch in skills required for the job and those possessed by candidates. Another factor could be that employers aren’t offering wages that are on par with what job seekers expect.
The report also casts doubt on the hiring challenges facing firms trying to recruit workers with lower levels of education.
“The degree to which these job vacancies can be attributed to labour shortages in specific low-skilled occupations instead of relatively low-wage offers and fringe benefits or other factors remains an open question,” the report says.
Jim Stanford, an economist and the director of the Centre for Future Work, says the report from Statistics Canada busts “long-standing myths” about labour shortages in the country.
“If you were really short of labour, and you couldn’t find someone to do that minimum wage job at a McDonald’s restaurant, then why aren’t they either increasing the wage or trying to replace the work with machinery?” Stanford said.
“Neither are happening, which suggests to me that employers in general are quite happy with the current state of affairs, no matter how much they complain about labour being in short supply.”
So what explains the high number of job vacancies?
Morissette said for low-skilled industries, businesses may be choosing to keep wages low and accept higher vacancy rates.
“For employers that have negligible training costs, a human resource strategy that combines relatively low wages with high worker turnover and some vacancies might actually … maximize profits,” he said.
The federal government has kept an open ear to business groups raising alarm bells about labour shortages.
In the fall, Ottawa announced new immigration targets that would see the country welcome 500,000 immigrants annually by 2025. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has touted the new plan as a solution to the country’s labour woes.
Canada has also experienced a surge in the number of temporary foreign workers brought into the country to help businesses fill vacant positions.
The apparent shortage of low-skilled workers could push policymakers to think that even more temporary workers are needed, but Stanford said that would be a “disastrous” conclusion to draw from the report.
Many economists have reservations about temporary foreign worker programs that they worry can suppress wages domestically, if used excessively.
“The goal of immigration policy should not be to solve the recruitment problems faced by low-wage employers, or any employers for that matter,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2023.
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