Free dental care - at long last - Keith Roulston editorial
Last week, the federal Liberal government announced it had reached an agreement with the NDP that would, among other things, give free dental care to lower income people in Canada. Hmm, only 70-plus years after my home community.
When I was growing up near Lucknow, one of the services we took for granted was a yearly check-up for all school children with the local dentist. I’m not sure how it started, but I’m guessing that local trustees wanted kids with healthy mouths and wanted to keep a dentist in the community, so they came up with a plan to send every child attending the Lucknow Public School to see the local dentist, Dr. Little, once each year. It wasn’t just us. I recall students from some of the one-room schools close to town who also had the arrangement.
As a child, I must say I didn’t have fond memories of the routine visits. We would walk down from the local school, two at a time, to the dentist’s office. The unluckier of the two students was the one who had to sit in the waiting room while the first student went through an examination, tooth cleaning or whatever else had to be done, imagining the worst from every sound that made its way to the waiting room.
It was years later when I came to appreciate this local service. Long after I left the Lucknow community, I met others who had not had this childhood care of their teeth and many paid the price later in life.
The double good sense of those school trustees became evident. On one hand, Lucknow had a dentist. Blyth, for instance, has never had a dentist in the 50 years I’ve lived here.
On the other hand, we children had good dental care, despite the fact many of our families were short on money and might not have spent hard-earned cash on taking their kids to the dentist if not for our trustees’ foresight.
The same problems exist today, according to statistics that came to light with the recent announcement. Apparently about 17 per cent of the population (about 6.5 million Canadians) don’t have proper dental care and say they can’t afford it. The new plan will target people with a family income of less than $90,000, starting first with children under 12 and spreading eventually to the whole population by 2025.
It won’t be cheap, of course. An analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2020 estimated the cost of a similar program at $1.3 billion over the year following the plan’s announcement, and $4.3 billion during the first year of the plan’s operation. The program would then cost about $1.5 billion annually until 2025.
On the other hand, the provinces are already being hit with many extra costs because of dental issues. It has been estimated that Canadian seniors without dental coverage often turn to hospital emergency rooms when experiencing dental issues, turning them, in many cases, into dentists for those needing help with issues in their mouths.
Then there’s the big flaw in this proposal, of course, and that’s that we already have a shortage of dental professionals in rural and small-town communities and finding enough dentists, etc. to meet the needs of those of us who live in rural areas may be a challenge.
And then there’s the issue of how much this will cost. Our community’s dentist had a tiny office and lived inexpensively. Currently, there are some dentists, at least, who seem to think a dental degree should earn them a lifestyle superior to that of their neighbours. And in a way they’ve earned it, by swallowing the cost of spending eight years in university and dental school. We need to open this procedure to make it affordable to more potential dentists.
But let’s be honest and not make it like the medical plan under which the federal government promised to support the provinces, but later pulled back to pay less. The federal government of the 1960s promised to pick up a certain share of medical costs, but by the time Paul Martin was finance minister, and the federal government found itself in financial difficulty, the federal share of medical costs was cut way back and the provinces had to pay a larger proportion of a cost that was already swelling because of increased services.
And then, of course, there are government priorities. The Ontario government, with a provincial election just months away, has been seeking to win votes by cutting costs, such as eliminating the fee for licence stickers for our cars. Such governments don’t like funding new expenses like dental funds, so those battles with the feds haven’t yet bubbled up.
Still, most Canadians praise our government-paid medical system, particularly when they compare it to their American neighbours’. Most will likely be glad to see it expanded to cover dental health.