With just months to go before patients can start making appointments, dentists, hygienists and other dental-care providers are still waiting for crucial details about how the federal government’s new dental-care plan will work and how much they will be compensated.
The government began accepting applications in January and eligibility for different groups is being phased in over time, with more than 400,000 seniors over the age of 72 enrolled so far.
But dental providers say they still don’t have details about how the program will work, how much the government will pay for services or how providers can sign up.
“I think that we are running out of time, and we need to get these details wrapped up very soon,” said Dr. Heather Carr, president of the Canadian Dental Association.
It’s still possible dentists will be able to get the information they need and register in time, but it will be challenging, she said, and the details dentists are waiting for will be critical to the success of the program.
“Dentists really want to care for these patients, but we just need to know exactly what the criteria are that we’ll be working under.”
Health Minister Mark Holland is expected to meet with the association later this week, and said he will be ready to reveal those crucial details soon.
“There’s some difficulties and challenges in some of those conversations, but we’re ready, imminently, to be able to share information with all providers, with all dentists,” he said at a press conference outside the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The Liberals agreed to deliver federal dental coverage to uninsured Canadians with an annual household income under $90,000 in exchange for the New Democrats’ support on key votes in the House of Commons as part of a political pact.
Last year, the government budgeted $13 billion to get the plan off the ground.
“I think it’s time that they were made well aware of the details of the plan, as we all should be, because we expect people to be in dental chairs in May,” said NDP health critic Don Davies, who has worked closely with the health minister on the development of the program.
Davies has advocated for dentists and other oral health-care providers to be compensated at the same rates they receive when they treat people with regular employer-provided insurance plans.
“I don’t expect dental professionals to have to subsidize this dental-care plan,” he said.
A common theme among dental programs that have failed over the last 100 years in Canada is that the government hasn’t paid dental health professionals appropriately, he said.
Each province has its own guide to how much dental services cost.
“It’s only appropriate to respect the different provinces and territories’ fee guides,” said Dr. Brock Nicolucci, president of the Ontario Dental Association.
The government modelled many aspects of the plan on the non-insured health benefits plan the government runs for First Nations and Inuit people, and government officials have said the fees will likely match the ones offered under that program.
The plan for First Nations and Inuit communities doesn’t offer the same compensation as private insurance programs, but usually comes within 85 per cent.
Holland said he wants to make sure the compensation for oral health providers is fair and that they have the information they need.
Many dentists in Ontario are frustrated by the lack of information at this stage, Nicolucci said, and they want to make sure people are able to have their choice of oral-health providers when the program is up and running.
Holland said he can’t promise the program will run perfectly right away, but it will be an improvement over the current situation.
“We cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of progress here,” Holland said.
Providers are also still unclear about the administrative burden associated with the program, but dental hygienists have been assured that the government is looking to minimize it as much as possible, said Angie D’Aoust, director of communications for the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association.
Health Canada estimates the program will be available to nine million Canadians when it is fully implemented.
On Wednesday, the government opened enrolment to people aged 72 and older, and it plans to extend it to all seniors by May.
In June, the program will open to people under the age of 18 and people who qualify for a disability tax credit.
“It should be about half a million people a month being enrolled in this plan for every month this year, and that’s very exciting for the millions of Canadians that are going to be able to go to the dentist for the first time,” Davies said.
The Conservatives have been silent, offering no position on the dental-care program.
When asked about it Wednesday outside a Conservative caucus meeting, Tory MP and finance committee member Adam Chambers shouted over his shoulder about the administrative cost, but wouldn’t stop to elaborate.
The government signed a $750-million contract with Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada to administer the claims late last year.
Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos had previously announced a $15-million agreement with the company to lay the groundwork in September.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.