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Uber insurance

The Insurance Bureau of Canada says drivers who work for ride-hailing service Uber should check to make sure their insurance policies cover their vehicles for commercial use.

Spokesman Steve Kee says some policies only provide coverage for personal use, which could lead to a rejected claim if the driver is using their vehicle to generate income.

Kee recommends Uber drivers — and those working for other ride-hailing services — call their insurance providers to determine whether they are adequately covered.

The Alberta government warned on Monday that Albertans who use services like Uber may not have insurance coverage or accident benefits under provincial law.

Alberta's office of the Superintendent of Insurance suggested that passengers using Uber should ask the driver to provide proof of insurance coverage.

Kee says in the case of taxis, passengers can rest assured that the driver has insurance because the industry is strictly regulated.

"The shared economy is really a new industry, and for insurance companies there are risks, there are exposures," said Kee.

"There may be some gaps, and I think a quick call to your insurance company can answer some questions."

The Canadian Press


12 years for Ponzi scheme

A judge has sentenced two men to 12 years in prison for one of the largest Ponzi schemes in Canadian history.

Gary Sorenson, 71, and Milowe Brost, 61, were found guilty of fraud and theft in February for an elaborate, multimillion-dollar scheme in which investors were promised unrealistic returns.

Brost was also found guilty of money laundering for which he received a separate, but concurrent, sentence.

More than 2,400 investors from around the world lost between $100 million and $400 million. Many people lost their life savings. The court received 600 victim impact statements prior to a sentencing hearing earlier this year.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Robert Hall also put a heavy restriction on the men and any financial dealings.

"Each of the offenders is prohibited from seeking, obtaining or continuing any employment or becoming a volunteer in any capacity that involves having authority over the real property, money or valuable security of another person for a period of 20 years," Hall read in Calgary court Tuesday.

Ponzi schemes involve taking funds from new investors and using them to pay old ones.

The Crown was asking the judge to sentence both men to 14 years in prison — the maximum sentence allowed.

Lawyers for the two fraudsters were asking for something in the eight- to 10-year range and pointed out the two were likely to die in jail.

One set of fraud and theft offences took place between 1999 and 2008. They involved companies named Syndicated Gold Depository SA, Base Metals Corp. LLC, Bahama Resource Alliance Ltd. and Merendon Mining Corp. Ltd.

More wrongdoing took place between 2004 and 2005 with a company called Strategic Metals Corp.

Investors were promised a 34 per cent annual return on an investment of $99,000, which was supposed to grow to just over $1 million within eight years. They were told that the business involved selling gold for refining and that it was "low risk.''

The Canadian Press

Gurus warn of 'killer robots'

Scientists and tech experts — including professor Stephen Hawking and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — warned Tuesday of a global arms race with weapons using artificial intelligence.

In an open letter with hundreds of signatories, the experts argued that if any major military power pushes ahead with development of autonomous weapons, "a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow."

Some people have argued in favour of robots on the battlefield, saying their use could save lives. Such weapons are still years away.

But the scientists warned that, unlike nuclear weapons, once they are developed they will require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials — making it possible to mass-produce them.

"It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.," the letter said.

The signatories included leading figures globally in academia and business studying artificial intelligence — the idea that computer systems could replicate tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as language translation or visual perception. They were joined by philosophers, historians, sociologists and geneticists.

Those signing letter included Elon Musk, Tesla Motors CEO; Demis Hassabis, who founded Google DeepMind; and Noam Chomsky, an emeritus professor at MIT.

Sean O hEigeartaigh, the executive director of Cambridge University's Center for the Study of Existential Risk, said that he is hoping for a discussion on whether autonomous weapons should fall into the same category as chemical weapons and blinding lasers — namely that they be shunned.

"It's imperative to hear the voices of the scientists," he said of the many who have devoted their lives to having such systems benefit humanity.

The Canadian Press


Profit behind power outages

TransAlta Corp. deliberately timed outages at power plants in Alberta at peak times in order to drive up electricity prices, the province's utilities commission said in a ruling Monday.

The Alberta Utilities Commission conducted hearings after the province's market surveillance administrator alleged that the Calgary-based company manipulated the electricity market by shutting down coal-fired power plants in late 2010 and early 2011 to drive up power costs during periods when demand was high.

"The commission concludes, based upon clear, cogent and convincing evidence that TransAlta could have deferred each of the above described outages to off peak hours but chose instead to take them during peak or super-peak hours so as to maximize the benefit to its own portfolio," the commission said in its decision.

"In other words, the timing of the outage was determined by market conditions rather than by the need to safeguard life, property or the environment."

The commission also found that TransAlta breached a regulation by allowing its energy trader Nathan Kaiser to use privileged information related to plant shutdowns so that the company could benefit in the market.

"TransAlta knew, or should have reasonably known that Kaiser had information regarding the capability of Sundance 1 and 2 to produce electricity that could reasonably be expected to have a material impact on market prices and would give him an advantage over market participants who did not have that information," the commission found.

But the commission said Kaiser established a defence of due diligence based on repeated assurances from senior TransAlta management that he could direct trades despite possessing information that wasn't public.

The commission also found that the market surveillance administrator did not prove allegations that TransAlta's compliance policies, practices and oversight were inadequate and deficient.

In a release late Monday, TransAlta said it has received the decision and will be reviewing the ruling.

It said its response could "include the possibility of an appeal to the Alberta Court of Appeal."

The company has previously denied all of the allegations, calling them "categorically false" and saying that it triggers outages for maintenance, operations and safety purposes.

The commission said it will resume proceedings later to determine how much TransAlta benefited from the closures and what penalties to impose against the company.

Jim Law, a spokesman for the commission, said it could fine up to $1 million per day per offence, plus claw back any benefits it finds TransAlta gained from any offences.

Brad Hartle, press secretary to Alberta Energy Minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, said in a statement that the government is "very concerned" that TransAlta was found to be breaking the rules.

"Alberta families need to know that they can get the power they need at a reasonable price," said Hartle. "When the process is complete, we will take a good look at what happened, as well as what has happened since to determine whether there are steps our government should take to better protect consumers."

The Canadian Press

Volkswagen outsells Toyota

Volkswagen overtook Toyota in global vehicle sales for January-June, the first time the German automaker has come out top in the intensely competitive tallies.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. said Tuesday it sold 5.02 million vehicles in the first six months of this year, down 1.5 per cent from the same period the previous year, as sales struggled especially in the languishing Japanese market.

Volkswagen AG said earlier this month that it sold 5.04 million vehicles during the same period. Sales were robust in Europe and North America but fell in China, usually a strong market for the company. Its first-half sales were 0.5 per cent down from the same period in 2014.

Detroit-based General Motors Corp., the top-selling automaker for more than seven decades until being surpassed by Toyota in 2008, is expected to report its figure Thursday.

GM retook the sales crown in 2011, when Toyota's production was hurt by the quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

Toyota, which makes the Prius hybrid, Camry sedan and Lexus luxury models, made a big comeback in 2012, and has been the world's top-selling automaker for the past three years.

In the first half, Toyota's sales grew in U.S., Mexico and China.

Last year, Toyota sold 10.23 million vehicles, beating Volkswagen and General Motors. But it has said it's expecting to sell fewer trucks and cars this year, forecasting sales will fall 1 per cent year-on-year to 10.15 million vehicles.

Volkswagen sold 10.14 million vehicles in 2014. VW makes the Beetle and Golf cars, and also has the Porsche, Bugatti and Audi brands under its group.

GM, which makes the Cadillac and Opel cars, was third at 9.92 million vehicles in global sales last year.

The ranking could still change when numbers come in for the entire year.

None of the automakers say they are trying to be No. 1 for the sake of being No. 1. But the industry crown is coveted and significant.

The Canadian Press

WestJet profit & revenue up

WestJet (TSX:WJA) earned a second-quarter profit of $61.6 million, up from $51.8 million, as the airline cut cuts and improved revenue.

The Calgary-based airline says the profit amounted to 49 cents per diluted share for the quarter compared with a profit of 40 cents per diluted share a year ago.

Revenue improved to $942.0 million, up from $930.3 million last year.

Cost per available seat mile for the airline improved to 12.65 cents, down from 13.76 cents a year ago.

WestJet also said it will double the number of shares it may buy back under its normal course issuer bid which runs until May 12, 2016.

The airline said it will increase the limit under the plan to four million shares from two million.

The Canadian Press

Forced to buy back trucks

Fiat Chrysler must offer to buy back from customers more than 500,000 Ram pickup trucks and other vehicles in the biggest such action in U.S. history as part of a costly deal with safety regulators to settle legal problems in about two dozen recalls.

The Italian-American automaker also faces a record civil fine of up to $105 million. In addition, owners of more than a million older Jeeps with vulnerable rear-mounted gas tanks will be able to trade them in or be paid by Chrysler to have the vehicles repaired.

The settlement is the latest sign that auto safety regulators are taking a more aggressive approach toward companies that fail to disclose defects or don't properly conduct a recall.

The Ram pickups, which are the company's top-selling vehicle, have defective steering parts that can cause drivers to lose control. Some previous repairs have been unsuccessful, so Fiat Chrysler agreed to the buyback, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Owners also have the option of getting them repaired, the agency said in documents released Sunday.

The older Jeeps have fuel tanks located behind the rear axle, with little to shield them in a rear crash. They can rupture and spill gasoline, causing a fire. At least 75 people have died in crash-related fires, although Fiat Chrysler maintains they are as safe as comparable vehicles from the same era.

Both the Jeep and Ram measures are part of a larger settlement between the government and the automaker over allegations of misconduct in 23 recalls covering more than 11 million vehicles. Besides the civil penalty, which was reported Saturday by The Associated Press, Fiat Chrysler agreed to an independent recall monitor and strict federal oversight. It's another step in NHTSA's effort to right itself after being criticized for lapses in some highly-publicized safety recalls.

"Today's action holds Fiat Chrysler accountable for its past failures, pushes them to get unsafe vehicles repaired or off the roads and takes concrete steps to keep Americans safer going forward," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the statement.

In a separate statement, Fiat Chrysler said it accepted the consequences of the agreement "with renewed resolve to improve our handling of recalls and re-establish the trust our customers place in us."

NHTSA has been involved in vehicle buybacks in the past, but never one of this size. A buyback usually happens when a problem is so serious that it can't be fixed and the vehicles need to be removed from service.

Under the agreement, Fiat Chrysler has to buy back the Ram trucks for the purchase price, minus depreciation.

It's unclear just how many Rams the automaker will have to repurchase, but the cash outlay could be substantial. According to Kelly Blue Book, a 2010 Dodge Ram 1500 — one of the smaller, less-expensive trucks involved in the recalls — could fetch $20,000 in a dealer trade-in, assuming the truck has 60,000 miles on it and is in "good" condition. At that rate, if Chrysler had to buy back even a quarter of the trucks at issue, it could spend $2.5 billion.

Fiat Chrysler said more than 60 per cent of the trucks already have been fixed, and the company is allowed to repair and resell the trucks it buys back.

The Jeep trade-ins could add to the tab, but they also could generate more new vehicle sales by getting customers into showrooms. Still, the total could strain the parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. The company posted a first-quarter net profit of $101 million and had more than $20 billion in cash and securities on March 31.

The consent order that Fiat Chrysler agreed to requires it to notify owners who are eligible for buybacks and other incentives.

Models included in the buyback offer are certain Ram 1500s from 2009 to 2012; the Ram 1500 Mega Cab 4 by 4 from 2008; and the Ram 2500 4 by 4, 3500 4 by 4, 4500 4 by 4, and 5500 4 by 4, all from 2008 through 2012. Also part of the offer are 2009 Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs and the Dodge Dakota pickup from 2009 through 2011.

The fine against FCA beats the old record of $70 million assessed against Honda Motor Co. for lapses in recalls of air bags made by Takata Corp.

Fiat Chrysler also received a $70 million fine, and must spend at least $20 million to meet performance requirements detailed in the agreement. Another $15 million could come due if the recall monitor finds any further violations.

Earlier this month, the safety agency held a rare public hearing where regulators detailed a litany of shortfalls: failure to notify customers of recalls, delays in making and distributing repair parts and in some cases failing to come up with repairs that fix the problems. Some of the recalls date to 2011.

The Canadian Press

'Plan B' shakes Greece

The Greek government was poised Monday for the imminent start of intricate bailout discussion but faced rebuke following revelations that former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, formed a secret committee to plan for the possible conversion of euros into drachmas "at a drop of a hat."

The talks have been delayed but are due to start Tuesday with technical teams paving the way for high-level discussions possibly by the end of the week.

While the final touches were being put in place for the start of the technical talks in Athens, a recording of Varoufakis discussing a parallel currency plan was made public.

Opposition parties have criticized Varoufakis and have urged Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to explain to lawmakers what he knew of his former finance minister's actions.

In the recording of a telephone briefing for investors on July 16 in the wake of his resignation days earlier, Varoufakis claimed he and a childhood friend who was a computer expert hacked into his ministry's computer systems as a first step to creating "a parallel banking system" in the event Greek banks were shuttered.

The Greek banks were closed on June 29 to avoid a bank run amid fears that Greece was heading for a euro exit. In theory, a parallel system formed from the effective cloning of tax accounts would have allowed the finance ministry to continue payments in the form of so-called IOUs.

Varoufakis said he had been authorized by Tsipras to undertake the planning prior to the general election in January when the radical left Syriza party swept to power. And he insisted that his actions were legal, in the public interest and aimed at keeping the country in the 19-country eurozone.

In essence, the plan, which Tsipras ultimately blocked, would have created a "functioning parallel system" to give the government "some breathing space."

"It would be euro-denominated but at the drop of a hat it could be developed to a new drachma," Varoufakis said.

Varoufakis confirmed the authenticity of the recording, which was released by the briefing organizers, London-based Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum.

The revelation that Varoufakis was working on a Plan B over Greece's future was one of many in a wide-ranging discussion on the Greek crisis. He also said that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble wanted Greece to leave the euro but that his boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was against so-called Grexit.

The recording prompted an outcry among opposition parties.

The main conservative opposition, New Democracy, accused Varoufakis of "dark methods that threaten democracy" and summoned Tsipras to brief parliament.

Tsipras, who is already facing a revolt within his radical left Syriza over a raft of austerity measures required by creditors for the talks to actually begin, is under pressure to call early elections once the bailout discussions are completed.

The technical discussions on a wide array of issues such as pensions and labour market reforms are designed to clear the path for high-level discussions between Greek ministers and senior European Union and International Monetary Fund officials later this week.

After passing a series of reforms demanded by creditors, such as steep sales tax hikes, the Greek government is hoping negotiations will be completed by Aug. 20 when the country has a big debt repayment of around 3.2 billion euros ($3.5 billion) to make to the European Central Bank.

Without the money from the expected three-year bailout totalling around 85 billion euros, Greece would be unable to make that payment — a development that would likely trigger fresh fears over the country's future in the euro.

But the reforms have come at a price for Tsipras. One in four of his lawmakers refused to back them in two votes in parliament, arguing that they flew in the face of Syriza's anti-austerity platform in January's election.

The laws were passed with solid backing from pro-European opposition parties, but left Tsipras without an effective parliamentary majority. That has stoked talk of early elections, just six months into Tsipras' four-year mandate.

"We must seal the (bailout) agreement and immediately afterwards launch an electoral process," said senior Syriza official Dimitris Vitsas, who is the deputy defence minister. "After that (there will be) a new government with a fresh mandate.

Greece has relied on bailout funds for a little more than five years after being locked out of international bond markets. In return for around 240 billion euros worth of rescue money, successive Greek governments have had to enact a series of income cuts, tax hikes and economic reforms.

Though the measures drastically contained budget overspending, they hit economic activity hard and drove unemployment to record peacetime highs. And because the Greek economy is around 25 per cent smaller than it was, the country's debt burden has increased to around 170 per cent of Greece's annual GDP.

Some sort of debt relief for Greece is up for negotiation though a direct cut in the amount owed is off the agenda. The IMF has said Greece needs big relief and has advocated delaying Greek debt repayments to European creditors for many years.

The Canadian Press

Tims rethinks in-house TV

Executives at Tim Hortons are reconsidering whether it's worth the risk of flavouring your coffee break with potential controversy.

After the restaurant chain was dragged into a clash between environmentalists and oil industry supporters last month, Daniel Schwartz, CEO of Tim Hortons' parent company Restaurant Brands, said Monday the company is reviewing its Tims TV in-store digital screens.

"We're now taking a look at the whole Tims TV program and what makes sense for the brand," said Schwartz in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"As with many things in the restaurant, we explore what's best from time to time."

The review comes after Tim Hortons was put in the hot seat for giving advertisement space to pipeline giant Enbridge on its in-store digital screens.

The commercials angered environmentalists who launched an online petition to get them pulled. When Tim Hortons yanked the Enbridge ads, some oil sector supporters called it an insult to one of Canada's biggest industries and launched their own boycott.

The conflict showed the potential dangers of a brand as recognizable as Tim Hortons selling ad space to companies that could rankle its customers.

The coffee and doughnut chain began experimenting with Tims TV last year before rolling out screens at restaurants across the country. The company described Tims TV as its own version of a community space, serving as a home for the latest news, weather, local events and branded videos.

But the thrust of the concept was to pocket revenue from what's essentially a billboard inside the restaurants. Advertisers could buy airtime on Tims TV in a looping rotation of content.

Canadian movie theatre operator Cineplex Inc. runs Tims TV as part of a multi-year agreement with Tim Hortons where both companies sell advertising time on the screens.

On Monday, Restaurant Brands International Inc. reported a second-quarter profit of US$9.6 million, or five cents per share for the three months ended June 30. That compared with a profit of $75.1 million or 21 cents per share a year ago before the two brands combined.

The company behind Tim Hortons and Burger King said revenue totalled $1.04 billion, up from $261.2 million in the second quarter of 2014 before Burger King acquired Tim Hortons late last year.

Same-store sales — sales at outlets that have been open for at least a year — were up 5.5 per cent at Tim Hortons locations, while Burger King had same-store sales growth of 6.7 per cent.

Restaurant Brands said it will pay a quarterly dividend of 12 cents per share, up from 10 cents per share.

On an adjusted basis, Restaurant Brands earned $142.7 million or 30 cents per share in its latest quarter. Analysts had expected a profit of 25 cents per share for the quarter, according to Thomson Reuters.

Tim Hortons opened locations at a record pace in the first half of this year with net growth reaching a historical high of 105 new restaurants, Schwartz said. About 90 of those stores were in Canada.

The chain is also looking to make a bigger splash in the Middle East with its local operating partner Apparel Group. Schwartz said he recently visited the region alongside chief financial officer Josh Kobza with the intention of getting a better grasp on how to boost the brand's presence.

"I'm really excited about the progress that has been made," he said.

"We've been figuring out the target markets and started speaking with partners all around the world."

The Canadian Press

Stars' streaming venture

Madonna, who co-owns Tidal with Jay Z, Beyonce and others, says it's just the beginning for the streaming service that's had some troubles since its launch in March.

"It's just the beginning, so we're working out a lot of kinks and hopefully we're going to build something unique and amazing that's going to attract a lot of people," the 56-year-old singer said in a recent interview.

Tidal, which offers a basic subscription for $10 and a high-quality audio one for $20, hasn't made a splash like its announcement did a few months ago, when Rihanna, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Nicki Minaj, Jack White and others stood onstage in solidarity along with Madonna, Beyonce and Jay Z.

Since then, Tidal announced a family plan and discount for students. The company also lost its interim CEO last month.

"It's important that people understand we didn't create Tidal, we didn't put this together, we didn't all join forces because we're broke and we want more money. The idea is we want to support other artists and we want people to understand this is our heart, this is our work, and we want people to recognize that and we want other artists to have a chance," Madonna said.

"We live in a society now where everybody just expects everything to be for free, but you don't get a house for free; you have to pay somebody to build it," she added.

Other artist-owners of Tidal include Arcade Fire, Alicia Keys, Usher, Chris Martin, Calvin Harris, deadmau5, Jason Aldean and J. Cole.

The Canadian Press

Nortel's rise and fall

It was 15 years ago this month when Nortel Networks' shares hit an all-time high of $124.50 on Toronto's stock market.

The company's sky-high stock made it by far Canada's most valuable company at the time — with a market value that briefly surpassed any of the banks and resource companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

It didn't last. A few months later, Nortel shares began a bumpy slide that resulted in a worthless stock and the bankruptcy breakup of what was once a global leader in telecommunications networks.

Even though Nortel is now long dead, industry veterans say that, human nature being what it is, most investors won't learn from its boom and bust.

"I find in this business, people want to believe," says Ross Healy, chairman of Strategic Analysis Corp., an investor advisory firm.

"People are mesmerized by rising stock prices. They don't ask if this is coming to a limit. The longer it goes on, the more that they are convinced that it's going to keep on going on."

He predicts that today's high-flying social media stocks will be crushed — just as other tech stocks were in the past — because investors are willing to overpay if they expect a company's spectacular growth will continue into "the infinite future."

Thomas Caldwell, who has had a long involvement with the Toronto Stock Exchange as the founder of Caldwell Securities, says he thinks the next crisis will come from "the ETF world" — exchange-traded funds that mimic market indexes like the S&P 500.

"You may have some heavy weightings in some big companies that just aren't going to be there some years from now," Caldwell says.

Nortel's large weighting on the Toronto market's benchmark index — as much as 37 per cent of the entire TSE 300 index — was unusual and problematic, but not the focus of reforms going on behind the scenes during the same time period.

"Changing the TSE 300 to what became the S&P/TSX composite was a fairly long, drawn-out effort and a lot of discussion," says David Blitzer, who is managing director of S&P Dow Jones Indices.

"Clearly Nortel was on everybody's mind when it was going up ... but in my recollection they were two separate issues."

The S&P/TSX composite index, which is most often quoted in media reports on the Toronto Stock Exchange, had 248 stocks as of Thursday.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals and the Royal Bank of Canada each had a weighting of 6.1 per cent, followed by TD Bank at 5.4 per cent.

Blitzer says it's not likely that another company could once again dominate Canada's main stock market index the way Nortel did 15 years ago, but it's also not impossible.

"It's a question of, 'Are we going to find a company that grows that fast or makes that many acquisitions?'"

The Canadian Press

Recalls trigger buy back

Fiat Chrysler will buy back about 300,000 Ram pickup trucks in the biggest such action in U.S. history as part of a deal with U.S. safety regulators to settle legal problems in about two-dozen recalls, two people briefed on the matter say.

Some of the trucks, which are the company's top-selling vehicle, have steering problems that have lingered without proper repairs for more than two years, according to documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The sources say the buyback is part of a larger settlement between the government and the automaker that includes a record $105 million fine and the appointment of an independent recall monitor. Both people asked not to be identified because terms of the deal haven't been released.

NHTSA has been involved in vehicle buybacks in the past, but never with anywhere near this many vehicles. A buyback usually happens when a problem is so serious that it can't be fixed and the vehicles need to be taken off the road, and one of this size likely will cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

It was unclear Sunday exactly what Ram models are covered by the buyback, but documents filed by Fiat Chrysler with the safety agency show a litany of problems in two recalls of the trucks dating as far back as 2011. Some of the problems have yet to be resolved. Trucks in the two recalls include certain 2008 to 2012 Ram 2500 4 by 4 and 3500 4 by 4, the 2012 Ram 3500 4 by 2 Chassis Cab and the 2008 Ram 1500 Mega Cab 4 by 4. Also covered are the Ram 4500 and 5500 from the 2008.

Details of the buybacks are expected to be released shortly by NHTSA.

The Canadian Press

Will insurance cover pot?

Canadians who have been prescribed medical marijuana could one day see their insurance company footing the bill, experts predict, following the introduction of new Health Canada rules that allow for the sale of cannabis oils.

Health Canada announced revamped medical marijuana regulations earlier this month after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that users of the drug should be permitted to consume it in other forms, such as oils and edibles, rather than having to smoke dried buds.

"You're going to see insurance companies slowly start to creep into the sector," says Khurram Malik, an analyst at Jacob Securities Inc., noting that the new regulations will allow medical marijuana producers to sell gel caps similar to those made from cod liver oil.

That will allow for more precise dosing, Malik says.

"When you're trying to smoke a plant you have no idea how much you're consuming, so that makes doctors a little nervous," he said.

Experts say the changes are a major step towards legitimizing the drug in the eyes of doctors and insurers.

"When something doesn't look different than other medicines, it becomes much easier for people to get comfortable with the idea that this is, in fact, a possible treatment option for patients," says Bruce Linton, the chief executive of Smiths Falls, Ont.-based Tweed Marijuana Inc.

However, medical marijuana producers still have one major hurdle to overcome before insurers begin routinely funding the drug — cannabis currently doesn't have a drug identification number, known as a DIN.

"If it was issued a DIN by Health Canada, it's quite likely that the insurance companies would cover it," says Wendy Hope, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association Inc.

"To obtain a DIN, the new form of medical marijuana would need to go through the full Health Canada approval process like any new drug."

As it stands, most insurance companies don't routinely cover medical marijuana. But some insurers, including Manulife, say they will consider making an exception if the employer has specifically requested it for one of its employees.

"It's up to the employer to ask if they want to have it covered," says Hope.

Earlier this year, Sun Life agreed to pay for a University of Waterloo's medical marijuana prescription through his student health plan after the student union went to bat for him. Jonathan Zaid, 22, uses the drug to combat a syndrome called new daily persistent headache.

Some health insurance companies may pay for medical marijuana through a health spending account, says Hope. But, she adds, "my understanding is it doesn't happen often."

Malik says the primary reason why medical marijuana doesn't have a DIN is a lack of rigorous, clinical research on its efficacy.

"The evidence is very circumstantial — not your typical 10-year, double-blind study that doctors and big pharmaceutical companies like to see," Malik said.

He suspects that's about to change.

"You're going to see a lot of Canadian companies partnering up with universities overseas that are a little more progressive than the ones we have here, at least in this space, to drive this research forward and legitimize it in the eyes of doctors and get DIN numbers on these things," Malik said.

Malik says there is a financial incentive for insurers to pay for medical marijuana, rather than shelling out for pricier chronic pain drugs such as opiates.

"From a dollars and cents standpoint, if marijuana is the same thing as a narcotic opiate, they would much rather cover marijuana because they're in the business to make money," Malik said.

The Canadian Press

Miracle drug, unholy price

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved a first-of-a-kind drug that lowers artery-clogging cholesterol more than older drugs that have been prescribed for decades.

The drug from Sanofi and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. offers an important new option for millions of patients at high risk of heart disease. But the drug's sky-high price tag — $14,600 per year — is certain to escalate debate about the cost of breakthrough drugs and who should take them.

Praluent is the first in a new class of biotech medications that use a novel approach to lower bad, or LDL, cholesterol. The drugs are considered the first major advance in treatment since the introduction of statin drugs more than 20 years ago, and analysts expect them to generate billions in sales.

But the prospect of introducing highly expensive, injectable drugs for one of the most common medical conditions is drawing concerns from health insurers, doctors and employers. Especially since generic statin pills are now available for as little as a dime a day.

More than 73 million U.S. adults, or nearly one-third, have high LDL cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those patients have twice the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.

The FDA approved Praluent for two groups of patients at highest risk of heart problems:

  • patients with abnormally high LDL cholesterol caused by an inherited condition
  • patients with high LDL cholesterol and a history of heart attack, stroke, chest pain and related conditions

Sanofi estimates those groups account for 8 to 10 million patients in the U.S.

The drug's $40-a-day price is even higher than many analyst predictions, which centred on $10,000 per year. In an interview Friday, Sanofi executive Dr. Jay Edelberg said the $14,600-a-year price reflects the "value to the health care system and the value to individual patients." He noted that estimated costs for a patient who has suffered a heart attack or similar cardiovascular problem range from $50,000 to $119,000 over 1 year.

But experts say more data is needed to establish if Praluent's cholesterol-lowering ability actually translates into fewer heart problems and deaths. Sanofi and Regeneron are conducting an 18,000-patient study to answer that question, but it won't be complete until 2017. Until then, many experts say new drugs like Praluent should be limited to the highest risk patients.

"What we know so far is that they reduce cholesterol really well, but what we're not sure about is whether they actually reduce someone's risk," said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a Yale University cardiologist. "I think the wisest thing is to be cautious about their use and reserve them for people who have no other choice."

An estimated 6.3 million U.S. patients cannot control their LDL levels with statins alone, according to medical surveys. And another 3.3 million are thought to be unable to tolerate statins due to side effects, but there are no formal criteria to identify these patients. As such, experts say more research is needed to define the group.

"I think we need to be clear what qualifies for statin intolerance," Dr. Neil Stone, a cardiologist at Northwestern University, said. "What moves you from an inexpensive, generic statin to a very expensive new drug that doesn't have near the track record of the statin?"

The FDA is scheduled to rule on a similar drug from Amgen by Aug. 27. Pfizer's entry into the field is expected to launch in 2018 or later.

All three drugs lower low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol more powerfully and in a different way than statins. They block a substance called PCSK9, which interferes with the liver's ability to remove cholesterol from the blood. Adding the new drugs to older statins reduces LDL cholesterol by about 40 per cent to 60 per cent. Statins alone generally lower levels of the wax-like substance by about 25 to 35 per cent.

Statistical analyses published earlier this year suggest patients taking PCSK9 drugs have half the risk of dying or suffering a heart problem as patients receiving statins or older drugs. But definitive studies are still ongoing.

For now, several factors could limit use of the drugs. They must be self-injected by patients, with Praluent dosed every two weeks. Also their price is expected to face pushback from insurers and other companies that manage drug expenses.

Pharmacy benefit manager, CVS Caremark, has warned that if 10 million U.S. patients ultimately take PCSK9 drugs it could result in well over $100 billion in new drug spending.

"The one thing you can say for sure is that these medications are going to add substantially to the overall cost of health care," said Troyen Brennan, CVS' chief medical officer.

But analyst predictions for the drugs are more modest, at least initially. Credit Suisse analyst Vamil Divan estimates sales for the entire class — including drugs from Amgen and Pfizer — will reach $10 billion by 2019. Pharmaceutical research firm GlobalData projects global sales of $17.8 billion by 2023.

The Canadian Press

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