How the federal dental plan could impact British Columbians

Dentists who work with low-income communities say they are hopeful a federal dental plan announced this week will help their clients, but still have questions about how it will work.

A new Liberal-NDP “supply-and-confidence” agreement will see the New Democrats support the minority Liberal government on confidence votes until 2025 in exchange for action on several NDP priorities, including a federal dental-care program.

“It is a matter of dignity,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday. “This will make a massive difference for health and for people’s quality of life.”

Bruce Ward is a dentist who has worked in clinics on the Downtown Eastside and he said he’s surprised but pleased to see oral health being prioritized.

“In the last few years, there’s been a lot of evidence to link oral health to overall health and that’s great that all of a sudden, people are starting to realize that,” he told CBC’s The Early Edition.

He estimates 35 per cent of people in the province don’t have financial assistance for dental care and when they experience a dental emergency, they have to visit a hospital and it’s a really difficult situation.

Ward says dentists have been advocating for years to have people covered before they end up in the emergency room.

“Which is actually very valuable, particularly in the last couple of years with COVID happening and there wasn’t any room for these people in the clinic,” he said.

Advocates estimate 35 per cent of British Columbians don’t have the financial assistance to be able to afford dental care. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Victoria’s Sheenagh McMahon said that as a self-employed person and a mom she has struggled to pay for dental care.

“I would give up dental appointments for myself in order to have them for my daughter,” she said.

She’s also worried about the focus on employer programs — insurance obtained through a third party party such as Green Shield or Blue Cross.

“We all know that employment is really fragile, I mean, you might be employed now but you might not be employed a month from now,” she said.

Michel Breau, the head of advocacy and governance at the Canadian Dental Association says he was also surprised by the announcement because he would like to see the federal government invest in the provincial programs that are already in place for low income people.

“These programs are quite underfunded. They’re almost exclusively financed by provincial and territorial governments and the federal government doesn’t really contribute to their operation,” he said.

He said he’s still looking forward to working with the government to make sure it comes up with the most “impactful” way to address Canadians’ oral health.

Back on the Downtown Eastside, Ward said a staff of dentists, hygienists and assistants who are volunteer are helping people who are experiencing pain on a regular basis.

“It’s a wonderful group of people to deal with. They’re extremely grateful and they’re extremely appreciative and they actually make going to work in these clinics a joy.”

“It’s really amazing to watch and it can happen very quickly with very little treatment, so it’s mostly an area of ​​taking people who would normally have problems accessing dental care and providing it for them in a manner that they can afford or they can deal with .”

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