House Call with Carol Hughes

NDP bill would ensure dental care for millions

In Canada, we are proud of our health care system. It delivers the care people need regardless of their economic status. When compared against the American for-profit system, the benefits to the public are clear which is why we are often spared the stories of health care costs forcing people into debt. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when it comes to dental care. Even with insurance in place, Canadians can find themselves tapped by big dental bills. For those without insurance, the cost can keep people from seeing a dentist altogether. The irony is that any money we may be ‘saving’ by not including dental care in our system can cost more down the road as problems exacerbate.

This is the thinking behind an NDP bill that will extend dental care to Canadians making less than $90,000 a year. Coverage that will help precarious workers, the self-employed and seniors. As our economy comes to rely more on gig workers and those who hold down multiple jobs with few, if any, benefits, this need will only grow.

The fact is millions of Canadians don’t have any dental coverage at all. This was made worse during the pandemic since many lost workplace benefits. If that doesn’t change, even more Canadians will end up in emergency rooms because of preventable dental problems they couldn’t afford to address or didn’t learn about until they got worse because they couldn’t even afford checkups.

This isn’t a matter of speculation; the link between oral health and overall health is well established. A report from the American Surgeon General in 2000 focused on the association explaining connections such as the one between periodontal disease and diabetes. We should also consider that oral health encompasses more than just teeth and includes the health of gums, bones, ligaments, muscles, glands, and nerves. Regular dentist visits can help people discover issues before they get worse, such as oral cancer which is considered fairly common and can be treated effectively if caught early enough.

The challenge seems clear enough: to ensure barriers to dental care are removed. Among those, cost is the most consistent obstacle. Right now, one in three Canadians doesn’t have access to dental coverage and more than one in five say the cost stops them from visiting a dentist. New Democrats want to end the gross inequality in access to this basic aspect of healthcare and ensure the health and economic benefits of appropriate dental care for all is prioritized.

As Parliament prepared to debate the NDP bill, I was shocked to learn that Canada ranks among the lowest of the 37 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries when it comes to publicly funded dentistry. That helps explain why people find themselves turning to social media to crowd fund important dental work, even when they have insurance.

Medical bankruptcy is the number one cause of all bankruptcies in the United States. While that isn’t necessarily a concern here, dental bills can do the same thing to household budgets. With an established connection between oral health and overall health we are only kicking a can further down the road if we don’t find ways to help those who routinely avoid the dentist based on cost. Tommy Douglas saw dental care as an important part of our health care system; this bill is a big step in that direction.