A proposal in the new Liberal-NDP agreement to create a national dental care program for low-income Canadians could deliver the largest expansion of Canada’s public health care system in decades.
“It is a matter of dignity,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday. “This will make a massive difference for health and for people’s quality of life.”
The deal to create a dental program is part of the new Liberal-NDP “supply-and-confidence” agreement. The agreement will see the New Democrats support the minority Liberal government on confidence votes until 2025 in exchange for action on several NDP priorities.
The NDP campaigned on a promise of a national dental care program during Singh’s two elections as party leader, but previous Liberal governments never moved on the project.
Here is what we know so far about the dental plan — how it would function, how much it would cost and the effect it could have on the roughly 6.5 million Canadians who don’t have dental coverage now.
How would the program work?
Under the program, families with annual incomes of less than $90,000 lacking dental insurance would be eligible for coverage.
Anyone making less than $70,000 annually also would not have to make co-pays — the flat rate fee which otherwise can be charged each time a person makes a claim. Dental fees would be fully covered by the government for any person or family with an income under $70,000.
The proposal is nearly identical to the policy plank in NDP platforms for the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The system would function along the lines of private insurance plans. The plan does not call for specific investments in health care infrastructure or for workers to support the needs of dental patients.
About 6.5 million Canadians are believed to be eligible for the plan. That figure is projected to decrease slightly to 6.3 million by 2025 due to demographic shifts and improving labour market conditions.
When would it start?
The plan is to be phased in over three years before the Liberal-NDP agreement expires in 2025.
Starting later this year, children under 12 would become eligible for the program.
In 2023, the coverage would be extended to 18-year-olds, seniors and people living with disabilities.
The program would be fully implemented by 2025 under the proposed timeline.
Laura Tamblyn Watts, founder and CEO of the senior advocacy group CanAge, said the program would make a “huge difference” in the lives of seniors who don’t have coverage and can’t afford dental care.
“Older adults desperately need the access to dental care that right now we don’t have consistently across this country,” she said.
Watts said Canadian seniors without dental coverage often turn to hospital emergency rooms when experiencing dental issues.
“We know that ERs are overwhelmingly the country’s dentists of seniors and that should not be the case,” she said.
How much would it cost?
The price tag could be revealed in the federal budget expected in early April, but previous NDP proposals already have been examined and costed.
An analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2020 estimated the cost of a similar program at $1.3 billion over the year following the plan’s announcement, and $4.3 billion during the first year of the plan’s operation. The program would then cost about $1.5 billion annually until 2025.
The much higher cost in the program’s first year is based on the expectation that people with unmet dental needs would seek care when they become eligible.
But the new proposal calls for the program to be phased in over several years, which could change prior cost projections.
“While it will cost a little more on the front end, it will save money on the back end and make life more affordable,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist serving as the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers.
“I know that people are going to say, ‘Why are we spending money?’ But that’s being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen said the Liberal-NDP agreement will lead to reckless spending during a time of economic uncertainty.
“Some Liberals have told me they’re very worried about the economic direction under the Justin Trudeau government,” she said on Tuesday. “I can’t imagine how they’re feeling now that they have a Jagmeet Singh-led government in charge.”