Winnipeggers without dental coverage are smiling over plans for a national dental plan.
The new Liberal-NDP agreement announced Tuesday will see the New Democrats support the minority Liberal government on confidence votes until 2025 in exchange for action on several NDP priorities, including a platform of universal dental care.
The NDP campaigned on the program during Jagmeet Singh’s two elections as party leader.
“It’ll help a lot of people. Give them a break so they can get their teeth or what they need done,” said Dwayne Gladue, who has gone without teeth for three years after losing his dentures in a fire.
He works full time as Indigenous ambassador for 1JustCity, but the job doesn’t include benefits.
He said if he were to pay for new dentures out of pocket, it would cost $1,000, more than two weeks pay.
“It would give me more benefits and it would help other people out, especially when they need it. A lot of low-income people do need this plan,” he said.
Under the program, families lacking dental insurance, with annual incomes of less than $90,000, would be eligible for coverage. Dental fees would be fully covered by the government for any person or family with an income under $70,000.
The system would function along the lines of private insurance plans, covering about 6.5 million Canadians, and will be phased in over three years before the Liberal-NDP agreement expires in 2025.
Children eligible first
Beginning this year, children under 12 would become eligible for the program, which would be a relief for musician and father Jeremy Hiebert. The lead guitarist for Comeback Kid recently shelled out $1,700 for his son’s dental work.
“Especially a musician coming out of COVID, that was a bit of a ding,” he said.
“I don’t want to have the same approach with my kids like I do with my own teeth. Like I want to prioritize their teeth.”
He added for the vast majority of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, a national dental coverage plan is a “no-brainer.”
“I’ve had three teeth pulled just because I would rather put money into a house for my family than spend money on my teeth. For someone like me who doesn’t have coverage through work or anything like that, it’s huge,” he said.
“You can walk into a hospital and you don’t have to pull out your wallet … for money. It would be nice if you could do that with dental care, pharmacare, eye care,” he said.
Manitoba’s provincial dental program covers 90 per cent of dentist bills for any child in the CFS system and anyone receiving employment and income assistance. The dentist covers the other 10 per cent.
“A universal care plan would benefit a wider population. Being low-income doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on EI or EIA so that would benefit more families, definitely, that we support here at the centre,” said Mareike Brunelli, director of community services at West Central Women’s Resource Centre.
She said the centre provides toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss to people in the community, most of whom don’t have a regular dentist. They always serve soft food as a default, she said, because so many have dental issues. She said the plan would help improve people’s physical and mental health far beyond the short-term.
Support from association
The Manitoba Dental Association also welcomes the plan, particularly how it will improve seniors’ dental care access, according to its current president.
“The MDA is supportive of any programs, whether it’s provincially or federally, that provide access to dental care for the economically disadvantaged,” said Dr. Thomas Colina.
But Michelle Gregorashuk worries the plan could have negative economic consequences for many Canadians.
“If we have a national plan, then we all pay for it and we don’t get a say,” said Gregorashuk, a mother of four whose family’s dental coverage is provided through her husband’s benefits plan.
“Anything that’s taxpayer funded we’re going to end up feeling it in inflation. In the cost of milk, the cost of bread and at the pump. I would much rather keep my money in my pocket and pay for my own dental care when I need it,” she said.
But many seniors, students, and families without coverage can’t pay for dental without sacrificing basic needs, according to Jenn Bogoch, a manager at SEED, a Winnipeg non-profit that helps people in low-income brackets apply for benefits, file their taxes and save.
“Dental care is a fundamental piece of health care … for anybody that’s had dental work that they’re not able to get done, you know how difficult it is to focus on anything other than that pain,” Bogoch said.
“Basic dental work, access to prescriptions, those sorts of health things are often things that we see people having to do without. So any opportunity that allows people to take care of some of those really basic health care needs without having to give up something like food or rent … is a really really important thing.”
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