Will federal dental care get to the root of the problem?

Ontario’s existing dental care programs have been underfunded for over a decade.

By Dr. Dan Hwang, President of the Ottawa Dental Society  

There are certain things we’ve always been told, no matter what generation you’re from or where you grew up; whether it’s doing your homework before playtime or eating all your vegetables before dessert, the main point is to get the fundamental and important things done first.

That concept is critical to the ongoing discussion about the federal dental care program recently included in the Liberal government’s 2022 budget. To say the announcement was a surprise to dentists across the country, never mind here in Ottawa, is an understatement.

The Canadian Dental Association – or any dental organization for that matter – was not consulted on this dental care plan that is part of an agreement between the Liberals and NDP to keep the government in power for another three years. While we can all agree that teamwork amongst government parties to get things done is important, so is doing the research necessary to put a monumental plan like this into action in a successful and meaningful way.

This is a proposed $5.3 billion investment into dental care for Canadians, a massive amount of much-needed funding to secure dental care for those who need it most, but the issue remains: will the most vulnerable in our communities be the ones who get it? Most Ontarians already have dental benefits through work or school, but there are significant gaps, particularly for lower-income people. We think the government’s focus should always target funding for people in our communities who need it the most.

To put things in perspective, Ontario currently has five dental care programs, including Healthy Smiles Ontario (HSO), which provides care to children and youth under the age of 17 from low-income families. There are also programs for adults and seniors on low incomes, people with disabilities, and those with complex medical conditions. All of these are badly underfunded, some for more than a decade.

The fact is, while the federal parties involved in creating this dental care plan may have done so with good intent, they did so without consulting the experts, and they announced it with no details to share with provincial governments or the people on the frontlines: dentists. It remains to be seen how this program will be run, and it may work differently from province to province. Regardless, we want it done right in Ontario, which is why Ontario’s dentists must be at the table during negotiations with the province and the federal government over how this investment will be used. Dentists can provide the invaluable expertise and insight required to ensure resources are directed where they’re needed most, and that taxpayer money is used wisely and effectively.

No one wants or needs another level of bureaucracy getting in the way of what could be a great and efficient way to get regular dental care to those who need it the most. Ontario’s New Democrats have included a similar dental program in the election platform, but just like what happened federally, they didn’t consult Ontario’s dentists on this matter. While we are interested in learning more details on how their plan would work and interact with the federal program, the problem remains there are dental programs already in place that are poorly funded. We need to fix these programs first, not launch more broken ones.

For example, Ontario’s relatively new dental program for low-income seniors isn’t meeting the needs of the seniors eligible for it. Only a fraction of the 100,000 eligible seniors are being treated, and there are years-long waitlists in some parts of the province for appointments. Ontario’s dentists were not consulted before the creation of this program in 2019, and we know much more can and should be done to help these vulnerable members of our communities.

The Ontario Dental Association has been asking the province to make a meaningful commitment to children across the province with a $50 million investment in the HSO program and sent a letter to the Minister of Health in September. A response finally came six months later with an acknowledgement of the hard work and challenges dentists across Ontario have been dealing with. Alas, there has been no concrete commitment moving forward.

In the meantime, dentists are doing all they can to continue providing dental care to patients on these programs. The Ottawa Dental Society is committed to making a difference by being actively involved in the community by providing free dental care, raising money for the Ottawa Mission Dental Clinic, and donating mouth care supplies to the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre, among other initiatives.

To be clear, dentists aren’t trying to rain on anyone’s parade. This renewed interest in providing funding so everyone can access high-quality dental care on a regular basis is an exciting thing! Dental care is a vital part of overall health and well-being and should be considered a critical component of health care by everyone. Just like the care physicians provide, everyone deserves dental care whenever they need it. This is absolutely an achievable goal, but the homework must be done first to ensure a federal dental care program will be truly successful.

Photo: iStock