SUDBURY, Ont. — Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh laid out a plan to extend full public dental coverage to low- and middle-income households on Wednesday, in what he described as a first step toward including dentistry in public health care for everyone.
The announcement at a training clinic for dental hygienists at College Boreal in Sudbury, Ont., was Singh’s latest pitch to voters on so-called pocketbook issues, a new promise to alleviate people’s worries about important things they can’t afford.
While the NDP’s plan was welcomed by one expert, the Canadian Dental Association was more guarded in its response, saying it welcomes any effort to expand access to dental care but wants more details.
An NDP government would extend full public dental coverage to households making less than $70,000 a year starting in 2020, Singh said, and households with incomes between $70,000 and $90,000 would get partial coverage.
“We know that dental care is essential for overall health,” he said before departing for a campaign stop in Barrie, Ont., on his way back to Toronto. “There are too many Canadians that cannot afford dental services.”
Up to six million Canadians don’t see dentists each year because they can’t afford to, according to the NDP, and those people often end up in emergency rooms with much worse problems that could have been averted with routine preventive care.
Those hospital visits alone cost at least $155 million each year, the NDP says, with such visits often failing to address the underlying issue.
The NDP says its plan will extend coverage to 4.3 million Canadians, which the parliamentary budget office estimates will cost the government $560 million in the first year.
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The cost would increase to just under $1.9 billion in the second year as more people caught up with their cleanings and getting their teeth fixed, according to the PBO estimate, before stabilizing between $825 million and $850 million in later years.
The provincial governments administer public health care but the immediate move would be a federal insurance program, Singh said, which would sidestep complex negotiations over funding and terms.
“We know that dental services are essential for health care in general,” said Singh, who in recent days has faced questions about the cost of his party’s platform. “So it is a real shame and it is really sad that so many Canadians don’t have access to this service.”
Public dental coverage a ‘no brainer’
The NDP’s plan elicited applause from Carlos Quinonez, director of the graduate program in dental public health at the University of Toronto, who said expanding public dental coverage to more Canadians is a “no-brainer.”
The details will matter, of course, including how much the federal government would pay for services covered by the new scheme. But Quinonez said the NDP is not promising a radical change to the current dental-care system.
It instead appears to be trying to address what Quinonez described as a gap in coverage for low- and middle-income Canadians who don’t have either private or public insurance, which should make it easier to implement.
“They’re just going to be paying for more dental care for the people who don’t have access,” he said. “They’re not touching private insurance. They’re not touching provincially covered programs.”
“It is a real shame and it is really sad that so many Canadians don’t have access to this service.”
And while the price tag might seem large, particularly when compared to the cost of dental-related hospital visits, Quinonez said there are many other ramifications of insufficient coverage such as lost productivity and more prescriptions for antibiotics and painkillers. Those can do other harms.
The Canadian Dental Association was more circumspect in its response, saying in a statement that it was “pleased to see that there is a focus on providing dental care to those Canadians who are not already covered by private insurance.”
“The CDA is always committed to working with any government to establish and maintain dental programs to meet the needs of those who are not currently able to access dental care,” the association added.
“We are very interested to understand clearly who will be covered, what will be covered, and we will look forward to consulting with any and all parties going forward to ensure that programs are appropriately designed to provide affordable access to oral health for all Canadians.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.