Implementing the NDP’s call for a national dental care program would cost taxpayers about $1.5-billion a year, according to a new report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
The proposal was a key demand of the NDP shortly after the Liberals were re-elected with a minority government last October. The government said in the December, 2019, Throne Speech that it was open to proposals from all parliamentarians and that “ideas like universal dental care are worth exploring.”
Yet priorities shifted this year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government’s latest Throne Speech, delivered in September, did not include any mention of dental care.
The political dynamic has changed in recent weeks though, as the Liberals increasingly rely on the NDP for votes in the minority Parliament. The Liberal government survived a confidence vote Tuesday on its most recent Throne Speech thanks to votes from the NDP, while the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and Green Party all voted against the government.
The NDP supported the Throne Speech after securing pledges for federal sick-leave payments and more generous income-support programs for individuals who can’t work because of COVID-19.
The party’s push for national dental care could resurface as the government prepares for its next wave of spending, either through a fall fiscal update or a budget. The Liberal government has not tabled a federal budget since March, 2019, which was months before the October federal election.
NDP MP Don Davies, who asked the PBO to produce the costing, said it is too soon to say what the NDP will prioritize in future negotiations with the government. But he said a case could be made that dental care should be part of a pandemic-relief package given that newly unemployed Canadians are losing their employer-sponsored dental coverage.
“As health critic, I’m absolutely convinced that the lack of coverage of dental care in this country is a serious health care deficiency, and I’ll be pushing very, very hard for action as soon as we can on this," he said. Mr. Davies noted the PBO’s estimate of $1.5-billion annually should be considered in the context that Canada spends over $264-billion a year on health care.
“I think most Canadians would say, yes, that’s a reasonable expenditure and one that is important for overall health," he said in reference to the PBO’s dental care cost estimate.
Wednesday’s PBO report estimates the cost of providing dental care for uninsured Canadians with household incomes below $90,000. Households with income between $70,000 and $90,000 would be required to contribute some of the cost on an income-tested basis.
The PBO estimated that 6.5 million Canadians would benefit from such a program in the first year. The report says such a program would carry an average fiscal cost of about $1.5-billion through to 2024-25. However, the program would be more expensive in the first year – $3-billion – as the program addresses dental issues that have gone untreated.
The NDP’s 2019 campaign platform contained a similar pledge. During the campaign, parties could ask the PBO to provide a cost estimate for specific proposals. At that time, the PBO’s cost estimate for a dental care program was lower, at less than $900-million a year.
A PBO official said the main reasons why the projected cost has increased are because the new estimate covers more people and new services, including crowns and anesthesia. The PBO has also made adjustments to address higher unemployment levels owing to the pandemic, which means more people will have lost their employer-sponsored dental coverage.
Cole Davidson, press secretary to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, said in a statement that the government looks forward to seeing the issue studied by the House of Commons health committee.
“We’re always working with provinces and territories to strengthen health care in Canada,” he said. “While many Canadians have dental coverage through private or public plans, we know there are many Canadians who aren’t covered.”
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