'Stop-gap' funding foreshadows possible concerns with federal dental plan, association says

The Ontario Dental Association is skeptical about the early details that have emerged about the proposed federal dental care program, which is expected to cover more than six million Canadians once it's fully introduced in 2025.

Initial rollout would give $650 annually to low, mid-income families for kids' care

The new Liberal-NDP agreement has resulted in a proposal to create a national dental care program for low-income and middle-income Canadians which would be the largest expansion of Canada's public health-care system in decades. (Shutterstock / chanchai plongern)

The Ontario Dental Association is raising concerns about the early details that have emerged about the proposed federal dental care program, even as it supports the overall goal of funding dental work for millions of Canadians.

"Right now, it's not a dental plan," said David Stevenson, a spokesperson for the association and its former president.  "This is a stop-gap measure ... a financial aid package at this stage."

Sources with both the federal Liberals and the NDP told CBC News last week the government will provide money to cover dental care for low- to mid-income families until a permanent program is implemented by 2025.

Each year, for the next two years, the government will pay $650 per child to families that earn $90,000 or less to cover the cost of dental visits, sources said.

The plan is part of a supply and confidence agreement that sees the New Democrats support the minority Liberal government on confidence votes until 2025, in exchange for action on several NDP priorities.

The official announcement was set to take place Thursday but was postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Stevenson, who has his own dental practice in Carleton Place, Ont., said for the full program to be successful, it will have to take a more "targeted" approach than what's been indicated so far.

"Hopefully this will progress further so that we can identify who needs it, identify what they need, and then properly fund it so that the folks that need care get care," he said.

Ontario funding 'abysmal,' dentist says

Government funding for dental programs differs across provinces, but Stevenson said funding in Ontario is "abysmal."

There are currently five government-funded programs in Ontario that provide some measure of dental coverage: Health Smiles Ontario, the Ontario Disability Support Program, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, Ontario Seniors' Dental Care Plan and Ontario Works.

The average payout provided by these programs, Stevenson said, does not cover the cost of administering treatment. As a result, private practitioners either turn low-income patients away or operate at a loss.

"It's ended up that dentists are subsidizing the cost to deliver care," he said.

Amro Merai, pictured outside the Yazdani Family Dentistry clinic on Saturday, says the federal dental plan is being phased in too slowly. (Sarah Kester/CBC News)

Phased rollout questioned

The dental care program is set to be phased in over three years before the confidence and supply agreement expires. Around 6.3 million Canadians are expected to be eligible once it's fully implemented in 2025.

The plan was on the mind of several patients who showed up Saturday for a one-day free clinic at Yazdani Family Dentistry in Kanata.

Amro Merai came out to get dental work done that would normally have cost him $400. He told CBC he supports expanding dental coverage but is concerned a phased approach will take too long.

"Some people have cavities, so from now to 2025 they're going to lose their teeth," Merai said. "It's not good."

Cesar Donas, another patient in line yesterday, said affordable dental care is important as a preventative health measure. 

"It would be better for everybody [if it were available]," Donas said. "It's expensive to get dental work done, so me and my wife wanted to get it done today and take advantage that it's free."

While Stevenson is skeptical about what's been announced so far, he's remaining optimistic.

"At least it's a sign that they're moving forward," he said.

With files from Sarah Kester