As Federal Efforts are Underway to Improve Access to Oral Health Care, Let's Work Together to Get it Right

In Canada, an estimated 2.26 million school days are missed each year due to dental-related illness, and tooth decay accounts for one-third of all day surgeries performed on young children. Only 47 per cent of adults aged between 60 and 79 years have dental benefits. In fact, one-third of Canadians are unable to visit an oral health professional because they do not have access to dental benefits. This makes access to dental care critical for these families.The oral health landscape across Canada is incredibly complex and varied, with each part of the country starting at a different place when it comes to public oral health programs and resources. Any path forward must take these different realities into account, in addition to the six comprehensive recommendations outlined by the Canadian Dental Association (CDA) in its policy paper Bridging the Financial Gap in Dental Care.In that paper, CDA recommends that in tandem with investment in access to care, the federal government should develop a comprehensive federal oral health strategy to address the broader set of challenges Canadians are facing.For Canadians who currently lack adequate access to dental care, their oral health needs are diverse and sometimes complex. An effective program needs to be flexible enough to meet these varied needs. Part of removing barriers to access means ensuring individuals can visit their dentist and get the care they need without worrying about a bill. The program needs to fully cover services and visits for these populations.Dentists like myself want to focus their time caring for our patients, so the federal program needs to be designed to avoid additional administrative burdens that impact or delay the provision of care. The program should promote the delivery of dental care primarily through the existing network of dental offices, take advantage of teams led by oral health experts and not disturb current private coverage plans.Canada's dentists see firsthand the impact that poor oral health can have on a person's overall health. We understand the challenges our patients face. By sharing our frontline expertise, we can help ensure this program will serve those who need it most.Last February, the federal government took steps in the 2023 budget by adding $7 billion and raising its total commitment to $13 billion in total over the next five years, and projecting $4.4 billion ongoing for the Canadian Dental Care Plan (CDCP).For our most vulnerable populations, this additional commitment increases the potential to make long-term gains in oral health. CDA has long advocated for targeted investments to improve access to oral health care, but cautioned the government on its initial cost estimates, which didn't seem to consider the many needs of those who have lacked access to essential, preventative dental care. The Parliamentary Budget Officer also warned the government last summer that its estimates would likely fall short.Over the past year, CDA has been actively engaging with Health Canada, former Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos, and current Minister Mark Holland, to ensure their understanding of the needs of these populations and the reality of the care needed to close the gaps in access to dental care. We also stressed the critical importance of minimizing disruptions for those Canadians who already have dental benefits.The level of openness and engagement has been highly appreciated and we look forward to continuing this collaboration. Indisputably, this program represents an important investment from the Government of Canada, and we all have a shared responsibility to ensure it is sustainable and supports Canada's healthcare system.We are hopeful that this program will have an enormous impact on healthcare outcomes and prevention, and we look forward to our continued involvement. The Canadian Dental Association wants to see the government make this important project a success. In turn, this will have a positive impact on the oral health of vulnerable Canadians.Let's work together and get this right.Dr. Heather Carr is President of the Canadian Dental Association