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Deadline tight to implement dental care, but Duclos confident the feds will meet it

OTTAWA — Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is confident the federal government will be able to set up its proposed dental-care program by the end of the year, he said Tuesday, though his department has not yet settled on a model or begun formal talks
Jean-Yves Duclos makes and announcement in Ottawa on Thursday, June 30, 2022. The health minister says he's confident the government will be able to implement its proposed dental-care program by the end of 2022, though his department has not yet settled on a model or begun formal consultations with provinces.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is confident the federal government will be able to set up its proposed dental-care program by the end of the year, he said Tuesday, though his department has not yet settled on a model or begun formal talks with the provinces.

As part of a confidence and supply deal with the NDP to avoid an election until 2025, the Liberals pledged to launch a federal dental-care program for low- and middle-income kids before the end of the year and aim to expand its eligibility over the next several years.

The government set aside $5.3 billion over five years for the program, and says it will start by giving coverage to children under 12 years of age with a household income under $90,000 who aren't otherwise insured by the end of 2022.

Duclos admits the timeline is tight, but he is confident the government will make the deadline.

"We're going to make every possible effort to meet that commitment and therefore to respect our promise to Canadians," he said in an interview Tuesday. 

"The actual path that will be followed in the relatively near term, given that this deadline is quickly approaching, will be shared soon."

Several models have been offered up by experts, Duclos said, but the government's not ready to announce which direction it plans to go.

Dental care traditionally falls within the realm of the provinces and they, along with several stakeholder groups, have urged Ottawa to simply transfer the money to existing health systems to manage the program.

Several provinces say they have not yet had any formal talks with the federal government yet, even though the deadline in the Liberal-NDP agreement is now less than six months away.

Federal officials have had some very early talks with provinces and territories, Duclos's office said in a statement, and they expect more formal discussions to happen over the next few months. 

Provincial and territorial leaders met in Victoria on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the ailing state of their health-care systems and call for federal leadership on the issue.

Ahead of those meetings, the president of the Canadian Dental Association, Dr. Lynn Tomkins, wrote a letter to the premiers to encourage them to talk about working with the federal government to bolster existing provincial programs.

"The federal government could ensure quick, efficient, and targeted  implementation of these new investments in dental care and avoid the confusion of patients and providers needing to coordinate between two levels of dental coverage," Tomkins wrote to the provincial leaders last week. 

In many provinces, though, dental care is unlikely to be a priority given the state of health care at large, said Charles Breton, the executive director of the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the Institute for Research on Public Policy. 

"There's an urgency in health care in the sense that it is a much bigger aspect of their budget," Breton said. "I don't sense that kind of pressure coming from the public on dental care. Not that it's not important. It is important, but I don't see the same kind of public pressure on it."

While the meetings were going on, British Columbia's Health Ministry suggested in a statement that the province wants to address the ongoing health-care crisis before discussing new services. 

"A new vision for health care needs to include a significant, long-term increase in federal funding for the core Canada Health Transfer," the ministry's statement said. 

The sentiment is shared in Alberta as well.

"We would prefer the federal government focus on being a better funding partner, rather than creating new programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction, which could displace existing public and private coverage," said Steve Buick, provincial press secretary to the minister of health. 

Still, he said Alberta would prefer to use the federal dollars to fund its own dental care programs rather than risk duplicating efforts with the federal government. 

Alternatively, the government could follow the advice of some other oral health groups like the Denturist Association of Canada and develop a stand-alone insurance program, like the NDP initially envisioned when they made the deal.   

"Different provinces do things differently, so I think from a national perspective we're looking for a federal program because it's one set of rules and one set of guidelines," said the association's executive director, Mallory Potter, in an interview Tuesday. 

"It kind of takes out that unnecessary confusion and bureaucracy that's involved with a lot of the provincially run programs."

She warned, though, that the Liberals should be realistic about the time it will take to get it right.

"The public right now was under the impression that this program is going to be rolled out a lot sooner than what we all believe realistically is going to happen," she said.

She said some people are putting off important dentist and oral health appointments in hope their treatment will soon be covered by the federal government.

That means there's more at risk in missing the federal deadline than the deal the Liberals made with the NDP. The health of many Canadians is also at stake, Potter said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press