$45M dental-care boost protects poorest children
TheStar.com – Living/ParentCentral.ca/Parent/Family Health
October 1, 2010 . Rob Ferguson
Ontario is expanding free dental services for poor children to include preventative care such as check-ups, cleanings, X-rays and fillings, the Star has learned.
Health Minister Deb Matthews will announce Friday that the “healthy smiles” program — costing taxpayers $45 million annually — is designed to help 130,000 kids aged 17 and under.
The free services will be available immediately through Ontario’s 36 public health units, but parents must first fill out applications and meet eligibility rules — having an family net income below $20,000 and no access to other dental coverage. Details are available at www.ontario.ca/healthysmiles.
The move follows a 2007 investigation by the Star’s Moira Welsh which found the working poor, who can’t afford dentists, face a slew of health problems and job discrimination because of bad teeth.
The probe prompted a government promise to expand dental care for people in need.
By using the $20,000 income level cut-off, the program is aimed only at the poorest of the working poor, acknowledged Matthews, whose government is fighting a $19.7 billion deficit this year.
“This was the best we could do. The threshold is low but it catches 130,000 kids who wouldn’t otherwise be getting care,” she told the Star in an exclusive interview Thursday.
“It captures the kids most in need. With the cost of going to the dentist, it’s pretty tough for these parents to find that money.”
Families on welfare already get dental coverage, so the preventative care effort will remove one more barrier for people hoping to get off social assistance, Matthews added.
Care will be provided by dentists at health units, community health centres and some dentists in private practice, with successful applicants getting an eligibility card.
The long-awaited program, which works out to an average of $346 per child, is part of the government’s anti-poverty efforts but was delayed for several months because the health units needed “all hands on deck” last year to cope with the massive H1N1 flu vaccination effort, the minister said.
Healthy smiles builds on the existing “children in need of treatment” program that provides emergency dental care only — and has prompted potshots from the Ontario Dental Association and others.
Critics maintained it defied logic that the province would pay to fix painful cavities long overdue for treatment but not provide the care that would prevent them in the first place.
“No child in Ontario should have to suffer from dental pain, have problems with eating, communicating or attending school,” said dental association president Dr. Lynn Tomkins.
Despite the new program, the government has not kept its 2007 election promise to provide free dental care for adults who are among the working poor.
Officials said the $135 million budgeted in 2008 for such a program over three years is being poured into dental care for children because the recession has left the government in a cash crunch.
“We’re focusing on kids,” said Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten. “Prevention and early treatment will save us money in the future.”
The American Dental Association estimates that every dollar spent on preventative oral care saves as much as $50 on later treatment, and alleviates other health and self-esteem problems in children.
Opposition parties have been critical of the government for not fulfilling its promise of doing more to help adults who can’t afford dental care, which, as another Star investigation found earlier this year, results in some people going to non-accredited “dentists” at cut rates and at risk to their health.
“I expect that when you put forward an election plan you know how you’re going to pay for it and how to carry out those promises,” said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
His NDP counterpart Andrea Horwath said she expects the Liberals will “continue to stall” on dental care for working poor adults.
Matthews said she doesn’t know if that promise will be repeated in the Liberal platform for the provincial election on Oct. 6 of next year.
Parents gauging their eligibility for the healthy smiles program should know the adjusted family net income is family net income, calculated from line 236 of each spouse’s or partner’s tax return, and excluding any amounts received from the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) and the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), the health ministry said.
The information is also available on the annual goods and services tax credit entitlement notice and the annual Canada Child Tax Benefit and Ontario Child Benefit notice. Applicants for the program will be asked to present those documents when submitting the forms.
One-third of Canadians do not have dental insurance, according to Health Canada.
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