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Kids, people with disabilities added to Canada’s dental plan

Ottawa plans to makes its dental plan available to additional 1.2 million people
Dental instruments are shown in Oakville, Ont., Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Ottawa plans to expand eligibility for the federal dental program to qualifying children under the age of 18 and people who receive a disability tax credit today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Staff

When the government first announced people with disabilities would have access to national dental coverage this year, Antonella Giordano really started to look forward to no longer paying out of pocket to care for her teeth.

The 61-year-old Montrealer has been on disability from work for more than a decade for reasons related to her mental health.

But she later learned she wouldn’t be able to access the coverage without first qualifying for the disability tax credit certificate — a process she found near impossible to navigate.

On Thursday the government expanded eligibility for its new dental-care program to uninsured low- and middle-income children under the age of 18 and people who receive a disability tax credit.

Even though she has applied for the tax credit certificate, Giordano doesn’t think she will be approved, and therefore would not be eligible for dental coverage.

“You practically have to jump through hoops, and even my doctors have said the same thing,” she said Thursday.

The government estimates 1.2 million more people will now be able to apply for the program, but critics have suggested that basing eligibility for people with disabilities on the tax credit will leave out a huge number of individuals who most need the help.

That will be the case until program eligibility is fully expanded to include everyone who meets the income criteria.

Citizens’ Services Minister Terry Beech said earlier this month the full rollout will happen in January 2025, but Health Canada clarified Thursday it will happen sometime next year.

“Somebody who’s getting maybe $3,000 a month on disability and who has the certificate is eligible for the dental care … and ironically somebody on disability who makes let’s say $1,000 a month is not eligible because they don’t have the certificate,” said Giordano, who called the criteria insulting.

“How the heck is this fair?”

Health Minister Mark Holland has defended the incremental approach to phase in the program over the course of the year, which was negotiated with the New Democrats as part of a political pact to prevent an early election.

Both federal parties have indicated that a slower launch will make the process smoother as the government gets the program on track.

“Rolling it out to everybody is a big deal, and every person that gets care that didn’t get care before is (a) victory,” Holland said at a press conference in Winnipeg on Thursday.

The government recently came under fire for overpromising and underdelivering on a new disability benefit, which the Liberals initially said would lift hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities out of poverty.

The budget revealed the program is expected to help 25,000 people out of poverty by providing a maximum of only $200 per month to low-income individuals with disabilities.

Like the dental plan, the benefit relies on the disability tax credit certificate to determine eligibility.

“What are people going to do with good teeth if they have nothing to eat?” said Rabia Khedr, director of Disability Without Poverty.

“We need to recognize that reality, that disabled people today need food, they need a roof over their head.”

Several provinces already provide dental coverage to people with disabilities, raising questions about how the different government plans will work together.

The answers remain unclear, though Holland said he’s co-ordinating with provincial and territorial governments to make it a “seamless experience” for patients.

So far the government is paying only for relatively straightforward care, but more complex procedures that require pre-authorization will have to wait until November.

So far more than 200,000 people have made claims for dental care under the program.

Holland said he expects the program will stand the test of time, and is unlikely to be dashed by future governments.

“When we’re talking a year from now, and instead of 200,000 people, we’re talking about millions of people who’ve received oral health care, I think it’s going to change this country permanently,” Holland said.

“I don’t think there’s any political party that’s going to come to a microphone and say they’re going to take that away.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh charged the Conservatives with wanting to take away the newly launched coverage.

A Conservative spokesperson wouldn’t say whether the party planned to axe the program if elected to government.

“While the vast majority of Canadians don’t even qualify for this so-called ‘universal’ program, those who do are unable to get the dental care they need at the dentist they want and still often pay out of pocket,” Conservative health critic Dr. Stephen Ellis said in a statement Thursday.

While the government’s dental program was never intended to be universal, it was designed to provide a safety net for people who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to get their teeth cleaned and cared for.

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