Federal Dental Plan’s Eligibility Concerns Disability Advocates

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Federal Dental Plan's Eligibility Concerns Disability Advocates
The federal government's new dental insurance plan has yet to be introduced, but advocates are warning the eligibility criteria for people with disabilities could be cumbersome and may not capture everyone who should have access to the program. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The much-anticipated federal dental insurance plan, set to be unveiled this fall, is already drawing concerns from disability advocates who believe the program’s eligibility criteria might not adequately cater to Canadians with disabilities.

The program’s primary objective is to provide dental benefits to eligible children under 18, seniors, and Canadians with disabilities. In their recent supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP, the Liberals have committed to extending dental coverage to all Canadians with a household income under $90,000 annually by 2024’s end.

However, there is increasing unease surrounding the way individuals will be required to prove their disability to access these benefits. Historically, the government has turned to the list of those who tap into the disability tax credit to determine eligibility for similar programs.

Rabia Khedr, National Director of Disability Without Poverty, voiced her concerns in a recent interview. “The list of people who access the tax credit is not the best list for them to work from,” she stated, emphasizing that this list often excludes those with disabilities who stand to gain the most from the dental program. For many, especially those with meagre incomes, even filing taxes can be a challenge.

Dental instruments shown in Oakville, Ont., Wednesday, April 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Staff

Khedr went on to highlight the bureaucratic hurdles often faced by those trying to access the disability tax credit. “You have to get medical forms filled out, and doctors might even charge for these forms,” she added, pointing out that many with varying types of disabilities find it hard to qualify, especially if their conditions are temporary or episodic.

Backing Khedr’s sentiments, a 2018 study from the University of Calgary revealed that only 40% of eligible working-age adults with disabilities accessed the credit. The study, authored by Stephanie Dunn and Jennifer Zwicker, identified multiple barriers, including the convoluted application process and, for some, prohibitive application costs.

On this issue, Health Minister Mark Holland remains tight-lipped about alternative eligibility options but hopes for a process with minimal friction. “Where something is medically necessary for someone’s oral health, we want to ensure that there’s flexibility within the system so everyone gets the care they need, especially those facing disabilities,” Holland said.

NDP health critic Don Davies weighed in, advocating for a more inclusive definition of disability. He believes anyone under the income threshold receiving provincial disability support should be eligible. But Davies acknowledged the challenges in realizing this vision within a year, saying, “We have been advocating for the broader definition, but we have to be alive to the practical realities of things.”

Federal Dental Plan's Eligibility Concerns Disability Advocates
dental care

Despite the current concerns, Davies is optimistic that these issues will be transient. “Since everyone meeting the income requirements will qualify by next year’s end, this policy question has a shelf life of a maximum of 12 months,” he remarked.

Khedr, however, stresses the urgency of making dental coverage readily available. “This can be life-saving for people. It’s about their quality of life. It’s about their dignity.”

The Canadian Society for Disability & Oral Health further accentuates the need for such coverage, emphasizing systemic and practical barriers faced by individuals with disabilities in accessing necessary oral health care.

Davies reiterated the importance of addressing the specific oral health needs of those with disabilities, noting that treatments might take longer than what’s typically catered for in dental plans. “It’s more about learning those lessons and ensuring the plan is as responsive as it can be,” he concluded.