A proposed Liberal-NDP national dental care program for low-income Canadians will provide services like exams, fillings, and root canals to families earning under $90,000 a year with no dental insurance. While around 66% of Canadians have dental insurance, a third currently struggle to pay for their own dental care. The program will launch this year for children under 12 and fully roll-out by 2025.
Preventative care is key
“I think that this will be the beginning of a lot of change to ensure that we now see oral health as part of our health, which it clearly is,” said Joan Rush, a Vancouver-based advocate for people with disabilities. When it comes to dental care, prevention is the best approach — both for individual health and to avoid burdening the healthcare system. “The bacteria that infect gums can travel all the way through the body, and actually cause heart attacks and stroke, for instance,” said Jo Connelly, executive director at Toronto’s Inner City Family Health Team. “When you think about the cost of healthcare of people who’ve had strokes at an earlier age, you can imagine that alone can cause all kinds of ripple effects for the health-care system,” she said. Emergency dental services also play a key role in resolving dental issues in a timely manner. A simple issue like a toothache, for example, may be triggered by a larger underlying issue that can escalate without emergency treatment.
Ottawa resident Shane Mckenzie, for example, found out how a simple dental issue can spiral into needing life-saving treatment in 2016. Mckenzie had a sore molar, but waited a month before seeking treatment. “But I guess it was too late,” he said, “because it was infected and it went into my bloodstream.” After developing a fever, Mckenzie collapsed, was rushed to hospital, and put into a medically-induced coma for over a week. Mckenzie had sepsis: the body’s extreme and often life-threatening response to infection. He needed one month in intensive care and a year in a long-term care home to recover. Mckenzie lost most of his fingers, and also had his right leg amputated. “When I woke up from a coma, they said if you were older, you may have not survived,” he said. “So for older people to not have dental care, that’s really scary to think of.”
Although the cost of the dental care program hasn’t yet been revealed, estimates put it at $1.5 billion annually — an investment that would partially relieve the financial burden on emergency room teams, who are often ill-equipped to fix dental issues anyway. Around 1% of all emergency room visits in Canada are made by patients with non-urgent dental conditions, which translates to nearly $155 million in taxpayer money. “But the vast majority of these dental visits are discharged while the oral problem likely persists, hence taxpayer dollars are wasted,” said dentists Dr. Mario Brondani and Dr. Syed H. Ahmad.
The Canadian Dental Association (CDA), however, is questioning whether the Liberal-NDP program is enough. It’s “important to ensure that any new initiatives do not disrupt access to dental care for the large majority of Canadians who already have dental coverage through employer-provided health benefits”, the CDA said. “The single best way to quickly improve oral health and increase access to dental care is to invest in, and enhance, existing provincial and territorial dental programs. These programs are significantly underfunded and are almost exclusively financed by provincial and territorial governments.”