Here's who will soon be paying less for dental care

Canada's 2022 budget promises to make dental care available for those who can't afford it.

Maja Begovic 5 minute read April 11, 2022
Orthodontists place dental implants to patient

Poor oral care has been linked to cavities and gum disease, but also to more serious conditions, such as pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. GETTY

Poor oral care can hurt people’s health, but not everyone can afford to take care of their teeth.

A new program is expected to help ease the financial burden felt by up to six million eligible Canadians by providing them with equitable access to dental care. The plan, which is set to fully roll out in 2025, will first be available to children under the age of 12 and will then expand to 18-year-olds, seniors, and people with a disability in 2023. In its first year, because those eligible may require restorative work or multiple interventions, the cost of the program will reach $3 billion — with unmet dental needs out of the way, the annual price tag is expected to be around $1.5 billion.

This is good news for those without health insurance, as well as Canadian families with an annual income of less than $90,000. Under the new plan, individuals who make less than $70,000 can also expect fewer out-of-pocket expenses as the dental co-payment fee — typically charged to the patient every time a claim is filed with an insurance carrier — is set to be fully covered by the government.

Poor oral care has been linked to cavities and gum disease, but also to more serious conditions, such as pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes — those who neglect their mouth may lose their teeth, which can make chewing food especially challenging. The social stigma experienced by people who can’t afford dental care has also been well established by studies that show that these individuals are perceived as less intelligent by others.

Oral health is a right

Michel Breau, head of advocacy and governance at the Canadian Dental Association said in a statement that “all Canadians have a right to good oral health,” and that the organization “supports efforts to improve access to dental care for those who need it most, such as seniors, children, those with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, racialized Canadians, and low-income families.”

But he also cautioned that while the new proposal is a step towards equity, existing dental programs, which are financed by provincial and territorial governments, remain “significantly underfunded.”

“The single best way to improve oral health and increase access to dental care is to invest in and enhance existing provincial and territorial dental programs,” said Breau. These enhancements could in turn help to address the unmet needs of vulnerable populations.

People who struggle financially may put off going to the dentist because of cost, but some Canadians also travel abroad for more affordable dental care. At Mexican border clinics, in Thailand, and at other popular destinations, such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey, dental tourism is booming and some Canadians are taking advantage of it.

“We don’t reliably know how many Canadians travel abroad for dental care,” explains Dr. Valorie Crooks, professor at Simon Fraser University, “but part of the market captures people who are traveling for that purpose, as well as snowbirds and vacationers.”

Dental services abroad are so heavily discounted that even after the cost of travel, it is possible to save money especially if restorative dental interventions are required. Research on the quality of that dental care is hard to come by, but a poorly executed procedure could result in serious complications — in rare cases, untreated or poorly treated tooth infection could cause septic shock or spread to the brain.

Crooks points out that some patients who receive substandard care abroad may require further follow-up with their regular dentist, and that may end up costing thousands of dollars more than what they would have paid at a clinic in their hometown.

Those with lower incomes less likely to visit a dentist

According to the Canadian Dental Association’s website, roughly 67 per cent of Canadians have dental benefits that cover some or most of the costs of treatment, but those with lower household income are less likely to visit a dentist than people with higher annual earnings.

Some dentists offer a discount to people experiencing financial hardship and to those without health insurance, but it may not be enough for those who can barely make ends meet. Patients typically pay $1,800 for a root canal or more if it’s a complicated case, $1,200 for a dental cap or crown, and $2,000 for a single implant — in today’s economy, these fees easily equal to a mortgage payment or a month’s worth of rent for some Canadians.

Dr. Aaron Burry, interim chief executive officer of the Canadian Dental Association says  that while provincial dental associations develop “suggested fee guides,” dentists aren’t obligated to follow them.

“In some areas where costs are much higher, dentists may need to charge more than what’s in a suggested fee guide,” explains Burry.

He says that the cost of delivering dental care in Canada is driven by several factors, including individual practitioners, the state of the economy, the cost of support personnel, sterilization, ventilation and infection control protocols, as well as all the equipment that is required to evaluate and treat patients. According to Burry, a dental practice functions less like an office, and more as an outpatient hospital and the operating expenses required to make that happen leave little room for large profit margins.

“It’s not uncommon in today’s world that 70 per cent of the service fee goes to cover all of the different overheard costs,” he says. “Canada has one of the highest standards of infection control and dentistry in the world — that’s what increases the cost of service delivery.”

 

Maja Begovic is a Toronto-based writer. 

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