Ontario’s New Democrats are pledging free or low-cost dental care for all low- and middle-income families if elected next month, with a plan that would speed up and expand a promised federal dental program.
Coverage promised under the federal plan — which is set to be phased in by 2025 — would be offered next year to Ontarians under the provincial NDP’s plan, which also proposes offering partial coverage to more people.
The NDP is also earmarking money to help more people access dental care with low-barrier clinics and mobile dental care buses rolling out to remote communities.
“It costs a lot of money to go to the dentist. It’s expensive,” Horwath said at an announcement in Toronto. “We can make sure that all families are able to access the dental care they need.”
Residents earning under $90,000 per year would be covered under the NDP’s plan by 2023 — two years sooner than under the federal one.
Families earning up to $200,000 would be covered “within two years.”
The NDP said Ontario households earning less than $90,000 would pay nothing and households with incomes of between $90,000 and $200,000 would co-pay on a sliding scale that goes no higher than half of the bill.
Ontario children, youth and seniors would also be covered by 2023, instead of during that year under the federal plan.
In total, the party said up to 10 million residents would be eligible for the plan, which it said would save a family of four $1,240 a year on solely basic checkups and filling a cavity, and if both kids need braces, the plan could save them more than $13,000.
An NDP government would invest $680 million this year to pay for their plan. The proposal would cover dental costs until the federal government plan is implemented. Once full, annualized funding flows from the federal government, the Ontario NDP would maintain its program with $380 million a year.
Horwath said she would discuss the possibility of speeding up funding for the provincial plan if her party forms government in June, but she’s committing to going ahead with her own plan regardless.
“What I’m committing to Ontarians is we’re not going to wait,” she said. “Oftentimes, these programs take a long time from the federal side to get on the ground, and we don’t think people have that time.”
Horwath announced the details of her party’s dental plan outside the home of Toronto teenager Annie Wong, whose family had to pay for an expensive dental procedure to relieve a painful condition in her early childhood. Now, Horwath said, Wong needs braces but can’t afford them.
Wong said she hopes that more fulsome dental coverage would help people live healthy lives and avoid the expenses her family incurred.
“It took us a long time to save that much,” she said.
The NDP said its plan would eventually “mesh” with the national program once it’s up and running.
The party hasn’t released its full platform costing yet and Horwath didn’t directly answer when asked on Thursday where the funding for the provincial dental program would come from.
But she said it would save the province money in the long run because it would take pressure off the health system if fewer uninsured people are forced to turn to emergency rooms for dental care.
The proposal also lays out plans to expand infrastructure for dental care, with $25 million set aside for 70 low-barrier dental clinics and seven mobile buses that would bring dental care to rural, remote and northern communities, which the party said would also come in the first year of the plan.
There are also plans to promote oral health education in schools and the party said it would look at options to offer dental care to children through school programs.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford reacted to the NDP’s proposal by saying a dental program already exists, pointing to a free dental care program for low-income seniors that his government introduced.
“We have that program in place already and it’s working well,” he said in Pickering, Ont. “We’re going to add on to our dental program, making sure we put over $90 million into dental.”
The party said it is exploring ways that low-income seniors can access more dental services.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said dental care is part of his party’s proposal to offer “portable benefits” to people who don’t have coverage through their jobs — a concept the Tories have also said they are looking into.
“It will be an urgent priority for me,” Del Duca said of that benefits package, which he said also includes mental health and prescription drug coverage.
The Ontario NDP is also proposing speeding up a promised federal pharmacare program.
A spokeswoman for the federal health minister declined to comment on the provincial NDP’s plan.
The federal Liberals’ dental plan is part of a confidence and supply agreement with the federal New Democrats to keep the minority Liberal government in power until 2025, after the NDP campaigned on dental care in the 2021 election.
Federal NDP health critic Don Davies said Thursday that the federal NDP is “pleased” with its Ontario counterpart’s proposal to extend dental care to more people, saying it represents a “major expansion of coverage” towards the goal of universal access.
“Hopefully, other provincial and territorial leaders will be encouraged also to expand the federal plan to cover even more people and provide stronger dental care across Canada,” he said in a written statement.
– with files from Allison Jones, Maan Alhmidi and Liam Casey.