Can feds’ plan take a bite out of Canadians’ affordability pains?

·5 min read

The federal government is pledging a suite of measures to address affordability issues, including a temporary GST rebate hike, a one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit and the long-awaited first phase of Canada’s national dental care plan.

Dental care is a key plank of the agreement between the Trudeau Liberals and the NDP that would see the Liberals remain in power until 2025 — but only if they deliver.

This first phase would provide direct, up-front, tax-free payments of up to $650 for children under 12 from families without dental coverage who earn less than $90,000 per year. This would expand to include people under 18, seniors and people with disabilities by the end of 2023, with full implementation by 2025.

“By the end of 2024 ... up to nine million Canadians who presently do not have access to dental care will be covered ... through a publicly administered, publicly funded plan,” NDP MP Don Davies told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. “It's the single biggest expansion of public health care in 60 years.”

Health Canada will receive $5.3 billion over five years to implement the dental care plan, according to the 2022 federal budget. The federal government says this targeted investment of $938 million for the first phase will benefit an estimated 500,000 Canadian children.

Tuesday’s announcement of this “interim type of arrangement” is a good first step, said Dr. Lynn Tomkins, president of the Canadian Dental Association. Children 12 and under are particularly vulnerable, and it's important to assess whether they’re susceptible to cavities early in life. Tooth decay is the most common — yet preventable — chronic childhood disease in Canada and around the world, according to the Canadian government.

“I am thinking about all the kids out there who aren't currently going to see the dentist,” Tomkins said in an interview with Canada’s National Observer. “Hopefully, they will have the opportunity before Christmas to get in to see the dentist and to start on that pathway to good oral health.”

The government aims to have the program for children under 12 in place by Dec. 1. It would cover expenses retroactive to Oct. 1.

Davies says, for the most part, the NDP got what it wanted for this first phase of the program.

The NDP is satisfied with the amount being offered per child because in most parts of the country, it's enough for a child to have an exam, X-rays, a cleaning and a procedure or two, said Davies, who is the NDP’s health critic.

Parents and guardians of eligible children will apply through the Canada Revenue Agency. They must confirm their child doesn’t have any private dental coverage and that the benefit will be used for the child’s dental care expenses, according to the federal government’s statement. It adds that recipients may be required to show receipts. Details on how and when to apply for the benefit will be communicated “in due course.”

The NDP wanted to have a full dental plan in place by the end of this year, but the Liberals “didn't think that they could get it properly set up in the eight months that were given, that's why it's going to take a bit longer,” said Davies.

“That’s why we came up with the idea of an interim bridge benefit that will get Canadian children to the dentist this year,” he explained. “But that's conditional on us having a permanent plan in place by the end of 2023.

“As our leader Jagmeet Singh has said: If they don't meet it, we will walk from the confidence-and-supply agreement and we won't even hesitate,” said Davies. On Tuesday, the federal government reiterated that it “remains committed to full implementation of a dental care program for households with incomes under $90,000 by 2025.”

Davies noted the NDP believes every Canadian should have access to dental care as part of the public health system.

“Every move that gets us closer to making sure that everyone can go to a dentist, regardless of their ability to pay, is a positive step in that direction,” said Davies. “The bottom line is, we ask ourselves one question: Does this get people who don't have dental coverage to the dentist to get their money? That's our touchstone and that's what we're driving towards. And we're not going to stop until this is done for every Canadian.”

The $500 one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit is another ask the NDP embedded in the confidence-and-supply agreement. At a press conference Tuesday, federal Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre criticized the Liberals’ measures as inflationary and said the housing benefit isn’t enough to make a substantial difference given the high rent in areas like Toronto.

“Is it enough? Of course not,” said Davies. But for many low-income Canadians, $500 is significant, he said, and when paired with the temporary GST rebate hike, “will provide real help to people.”

The GST rebate will be doubled for six months, which while not part of the Liberal-NDP deal, is something the NDP has pushed for in the spring but was rejected by the Liberals.

“Putting money into the hands of those people is not inflationary because they turn around and they spend it in our communities,” he said.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer