The Dental Association of Prince Edward Island says the federal budget promise to create a national dental program is good news for Islanders but hopes it won’t replace the provincial program currently in place.
The federal Liberal government agreed to launch a new dental care program for middle- and low-income Canadians last month, in exchange for support from the New Democrats until 2025.
The federal budget tabled in the House of Commons on Thursday earmarks $5.3 billion over five years and an annual cost of $1.7 billion for dental care across the country after the program is fully implemented in 2025. This coverage is set to start this year with children under 12 and then expand to cover those under 18, seniors and people living with a disability in 2023.
The program is limited to families with incomes of less than $90,000 a year. For those with an income of less than $70,000, no co-payments will be required.
Dr. Brian Barrett, executive director of the Dental Association of P.E.I., said he’s impressed with how much money the federal government is investing in dental care.
“Any time that additional funds are made available to allow more Canadians access to the dental health care that they need, that’s got to be a good thing,” Barrett said.
“In times like this where people have to make choices between, you know, putting food on the table for their kids or getting their teeth fixed, it’s a tough decision.”
‘The devil’s always in the details’
Barrett said while the federal program will benefit many Canadian who don’t have other options when it comes to dental coverage, here on P.E.I., the province does provide funding options and he hopes the program can align with coverage already offered by the provincial government.
Last year, the province launched its own dental care program, which provides coverage to lower-income Islanders. The program is open to all children covered by the province’s former Children’s Dental Care Program, anyone receiving financial assistance and all individuals who applied via income eligibility.
The provincial program offers dental coverage on a sliding scale based on a person’s income.
According to Health PEI, 15,379 eligibility cards have been sent to people who have applied for the program, and 4,985 people have accessed care through the program since October 2021.
The 2021-22 provincial dental budget was $5.4 million, but the government expects to spend $4.75 million. The budget for 2022-23 is $7.6 million, which includes investments of $3.5 million to support recent program changes. A further investment of $1.4 million is planned for 2023-24, bringing the investment to a total of $4.9 million to support the program changes.
Barrett said the provincial program has been successful so far and is a model very similar to that being offered by the federal government. He said his biggest concern about the federal plan would be if it made P.E.I.’s program less effective.
“The devil’s always in the details. I would hate to think that the feds would completely invent a new program that would either replace or try to be a supplement to the plan that the province has already implemented,” he said.
“It would be my hope that like with medicare, the funding for the dental program for P.E.I. would be a federal health transfer of funds and allow P.E.I. to run the program for them.”
Barrett said expanding access to dental care will help offset costs and pressure on the medical system as a whole, as many people who can’t afford a dentist when they have an issue with their oral health will eventually visit an emergency room for treatment.
Premier hopes to expand provincial program
Meanwhile, in the P.E.I. legislature on Friday, Premier Dennis King said he also hopes the funds allocated for dental care in the federal budget will allow the province to expand its existing coverage plan.
“I hope they will allow us to sort of tap that onto what we do. Our program far exceeds what the federal government has laid out in the budget,” he said.
King said he’s hoping to find out more about what the federal program will look like in the coming days and how money will be allocated through it.
Speaking with reporters, King said the budget is a substantial document and his office will have to go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see how those funds could be applied here. He said initial estimates show P.E.I. could be expecting $7 million to $8 million from the dental care program.
“We really hope that there will be an allowance for us to just take our program and take the federal money and put it on top of it to expand the criteria and to expand the overall delivery of it.”
King said he’d like to see more people covered under the provincial plan, and negotiations with the federal government will begin to try to make that happen.