The federal government says it won’t come calling if parents don’t spend every cent of their dental-care dollars on their kids’ teeth, but the Canada Revenue Agency will check in to make sure the program isn’t abused.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos tabled new dental-care legislation in the House of Commons Tuesday to allow the government to send cheques to low- and middle-income families to help them pay for their kids’ oral health services.
If granted royal assent, Bill C-31 would provide qualifying families with children under the age of 12 with up to $650 per child each year to pay for dental care services, depending on their household income.
The benefit is part of a package of new legislation aimed at easing the burden of inflation and the rising cost of living.
Bill C-31 also includes a one-time $500 top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit for families with an adjusted net income of $35,000 and singles who earn less than $20,000. Applicants must pay at least 30 per cent of their adjusted net income on rent to qualify.
Those initiatives were included in the Liberals’ supply and confidence deal with the NDP, in exchange for the opposition party’s promise not to trigger an election before 2025.
Associate finance minister Randy Boissonnault tabled the government’s other initiative in Bill C-30, which would double the GST credit for those who are already eligible. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been calling for that change for some time.
For the dental benefit, families with a household income under $90,000 need to provide the Canada Revenue Agency with the name and address of their licensed dental-care practitioner and the month of the planned appointment.
They must also attest that the child does not have private dental insurance and that they will keep their receipts.
“We hope that the proposed legislation will pass quickly through the House and that all parties will support it so that eligible families and children can start receiving their benefit in 2022,” Duclos said at a news conference in the foyer of West Block.
The government expects roughly 500,000 children will qualify for the benefit.
In a followup interview, Duclos said the benefit amount of $650 was chosen carefully based on advice from experts in the field.
“The figure is there to reassure families that they will have enough resources if they go in and bring their children to the dentist,” he said.
Qualifying families will be able to apply for more money if the benefit doesn’t cover all of their child’s dental expenses.
Officials with Health Canada, who provided a briefing on the condition they not be named, say families will not be penalized if they don’t use the full amount.
However, families who provide false information, can’t provide receipts or don’t use any of the money for dental care could face a maximum fine of $5,000.
The Canada Revenue Agency can, based on a balance of probabilities, give families a pass if they unknowingly break the rules, a representative of the agency said at the briefing.
Duclos said the CRA is accustomed to using “not only the rigour, but also the judgment and the humanity that is sometimes needed to work with populations that may feel vulnerable and marginalized.”
Dental care is a major element of the Liberals’ supply and confidence deal with the NDP to hold off an election until 2025. Singh, who criticized the government for clawing back CERB payments, says he’ll be watching closely to make sure the same doesn’t happen with the dental benefit.
“We want to make sure that $650 is free from being clawed back, that it goes to families, it goes to people that need it,” he said at a news conference.”
Singh said the NDP fought for the benefit, though it wasn’t everything they hoped for from this first phase of the program.
“It took a lot of us fighting and forcing the government to act,” he said.
Though the program is intended for people who don’t have private insurance, those who have coverage from the provincial, territorial and even federal governments can still apply as long as they can prove they had out-of-pocket dental expenses.
Duclos said the government is mindful about disturbing the dental-care landscape in Canada, which is made up of a patchwork of provincial and private plans, but said he believes the risk is minimal.
“There is a very minor presence of public, provincial and territorial dental care currently in Canada,” he said, explaining that only about four per cent of dental-care spending comes from provinces and territories.
Duclos said the department aims to roll out a full-fledged dental-care program by 2023.
“This interim Canada dental benefit is just a start.”