12/08/2014 11:23 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST

Ontario NDP: Thousands Of Low-Income Kids To Lose Dental Care

TORONTO - Thousands of Ontario children in low-income families will lose access to preventive dental care because of Liberal government service cuts, the NDP said Monday.

The Liberals denied the opposition charge, but also said the changes are not "cast in stone" and are the subject of ongoing consultations. Changes to the dental programs will actually mean thousands more children can now access dental services, the Liberals said.

As of April 2014, expanded eligibility for the Healthy Smiles Ontario program means 70,000 more children can get free cleanings and basic treatment, the government said.

"The changes that we are making are designed to help more kids whose families cannot afford dental services to get those dental services," Premier Kathleen Wynne said in the legislature after NDP Leader Andrea Horwath raised the issue.

"If there is a particular issue in a particular program in a particular municipality I know that the minister of health would like to know about that."

Six dental programs will be intergrated into an expanded Healthy Smiles program in August 2015, which the government says will make it easier for families to access timely dental care for children.

But the NDP pointed out that the income threshold for preventive dental services will be significantly higher for the new program, to the point that many families will no longer qualify.

"These are shocking and appalling cuts that strike at the heart of vital public health services in our province and frankly it completely defies the body of evidence that we have," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

"By removing these dental services from the most vulnerable children we are putting our kids' health at risk."

Local public health agencies will no longer be mandated under Ontario Public Health Standards to provide prevention services to children and youth, Gelinas said.

The Liberals insisted that no child will lose access to preventive dental services that they are currently eligible to receive. They said the government will ensure supports are in place to deliver on that promise before the new rules go into effect next year.

"There are ongoing negotiations in particular with public health units around some of their preventative services," said Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, who was fielding questions on the issue.

"At this point in time the program is not cast in stone and those conversations are continuing."

Toronto's chief medical officer of health flagged the issue this summer, telling the city in a report that 15,000 fewer children in Toronto will be eligible under new criteria, which will lead to a decline in their oral health.

The Toronto Board of Health passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to reverse the upcoming changes.

The Northwestern Board of Health passed a resolution in November saying the new program "will not fully support preventive services," and that fewer than 80 of the 4,000 children seen in 2013 under the program will meet the new criteria.

Bill Walker, the Progressive Conservative's social services critic, said he doesn't believe the Liberals' figures.

"I think this is going to be the most vulnerable members of society suffering again," he said. "I can't fathom why we don't give regular exams and regular cleanings so those people stay relatively healthy as opposed to neglecting them and then they're in the emergency room, which is our most costly form of health care."

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