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Jagmeet Singh says Liberals must expand dental care program to maintain deal with NDP

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says the budget must expand dental care for low-income Canadians if the Liberal government wants to retain his party's support on confidence votes in the House of Commons.  (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says the budget must expand dental care for low-income Canadians if the Liberal government wants to retain his party's support on confidence votes in the House of Commons. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says next week's federal budget must expand dental care in order to maintain the confidence-and-supply agreement his party has with the Liberals.

He said he also wants to see some action on mental health, financial supports for the vulnerable and a response to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.

"The dental care program is a health piece that's going to help people with really critical health, but it's also [about] savings," he told CBC News Thursday.

"There's certain things that are outlined in the agreement [and] that dental care piece is specifically outlined. That has to be there and the expansion has to be there."

When the Liberals and the NDP announced their confidence-and-supply agreement a year ago, the NDP's support in the House of Commons was contingent on the Liberals introducing a national dental care program for low-income Canadians.

In its first year, that program was to cover low-income Canadians under age 12. In 2023, the program is set to expand to cover Canadians under 18, seniors and those living with a disability. The program is to be fully implemented by 2025. 

In the last federal election, the Liberals promised to establish a new federal transfer — separate from the Canada Health Transfer — called the Canada Mental Health Transfer (CMHT).

With an initial investment of $4.5 billion over five years, combined with existing bilateral agreements on mental health services signed with the provinces in 2017, mental health services were to get $2.5 billion annually until 2025-26.

"This transfer will help establish standards in each province and territory, so that Canadians are able to expect services that are timely, universal and culturally competent," the Liberal platform said.

Mental health transfer a must: Singh

Singh said the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising interest rates and inflation all contributed to increased mental strain among Canadians and the Liberal government needs to fulfil its commitments on mental health.

"We believe a mental health transfer should happen … The fact that mental health is something that's been long underfunded and inaccessible needs to be met with a specific transfer," he said.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH) published a survey of Canadians who have accessed mental health services or resources during the past year.

That survey found only 23 per cent of respondents said that mental health supports were meeting their current needs, while 47 per cent gave the support they received a failing grade.

Earlier this month, mental health advocates told CBC News they've seen little of that promised money despite a rise in the number of reported mood disorders since the start of the pandemic.

"There's no way that increased investment has caught up with the increased level of need," Mary Bartram, policy director at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, told CBC News.

Targeted measures for the vulnerable

Earlier this week, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the budget will offer targeted measures to help Canadians squeezed by rising interest rates and inflation.

Freeland said the support will be "narrowly focused and fiscally responsible" but warned that the Liberal government "can't fully compensate every single Canadian for all of the effects of inflation or for elevated interest rates."

Singh told CBC News he wants to see two affordability measures in the budget: a boost to the GST rebate and a school lunches program.

Last year, under pressure from the NDP, the Liberal government doubled the GST tax credit for six months. Singles without children got up to $234 more from the credit, couples with children got up to $467 and seniors got an average boost of $225.

As overall inflation eases, grocery prices remain stubbornly high

"A lot of people got extra money to help them pay bills. That is huge," Singh said. "When you are struggling, that extra help means the world and I really believe in that."

Singh said the cost of last year's GST boost is now "baked into" the government's finances and while he would like the increase to be made permanent, he's only expecting to see short-term relief.

He said he wants the federal and provincial governments to sit down and negotiate a school lunches program to help families and ensure children are getting proper nutrition.

"Both these measures are non-inflationary because they are targeted and the way that they are rolled out will not increase overall inflation," he said.

Freeland also said this week that the budget will contain measures to offset the impact of U.S. President Joe Biden's Inflation Reduction Act.  Finance Canada officials said last fall that the act amounts to "a gravitational black hole" that will draw capital to the U.S. at the expense of Canada and other countries.

The multi-billion-dollar program earmarks government dollars for developing low-carbon energy in a way that boosts the U.S.'s manufacturing sector while taking aim at China's dominant position in the clean energy tech supply chain.

"We want to see a response to America's Inflation Reduction Act … we want to see a plan in Canada to create good jobs and help us to fight the climate crisis we're dealing with as well," Singh said.

Singh said that measures should be crafted to match the impact of the U.S. program and should go toward creating jobs, rather than directly to companies.