Ontario’s new dental plan for youth is good, but could be great
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Advocates expect that nearly 500,000 young people will receive dental care — if the Ontario government helps community workers push the program.
Dec 17 2013. Editorial
There’s nothing like a bit of good news before Christmas — especially for impoverished children.
Not to suggest that kids are going to raise a cheer about regular trips to the dentist, but Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews’ plan to give an additional 70,000 low-income young people free dental treatment is a striking improvement for oral health. Anyone with long-term vision knows thatgood teeth make for healthier lives and a greater shot at upward mobility. For someone trying to escape from poverty, every bit helps.
As Matthews announced this week, the government is streamlining a patchwork of six low-income dental care programs (those on social assistance are automatically covered) into one major program called Healthy Smiles. It’s also raising the income eligibility level so that more young people (under the age of 17) can sit in a public-health dentist’s chair.
When the new program starts operating next April, oral health advocates like Jacquie Maund say it has the potential to care for some 500,000 young people in total. As Maund says, “This is a good news announcement.” She’s right — it’s a strong step forward.
But if Matthews wants to succeed in reaching numbers that large she must ensure families are educated about Healthy Smiles and its far-reaching benefits. There’s little value in a program that doesn’t reach the people it aims to help.
The ministry must enable community workers to connect with low-income people in the community, providing information on the programs and the importance of early dental care.
Let’s face it, not many people with rotten teeth end up in well-paid jobs. But as the Star has previously documented, bad teeth lead to infections that spread throughout the body, causing heart disease and even blindness. Clearly, teeth and health are inextricably linked. As Toronto Public Health’s Dr. Hazel Stewart says, “Teeth are vital organs.”
It’s a shame that dental care was not originally included in Canada’s medicare system so that oral care would be covered by OHIP. Instead, dentistry has flourished as a market-driven business. A basic visit to the dentist can set a patient back several hundred dollars and the cost of major care runs in the thousands of dollars. That’s hard enough for the middle class to afford, let alone those who can barely make the month’s rent.
Starting next year, the financial cut-off point for help will be increased to include families with a slightly higher income, but are still close to the poverty line. Those with an adjusted net income of $21,513 (with one child) are now eligible. For every additional child, an increase of $1,500 in annual income is allowed. Obviously, they could not afford dental care without assistance.
As the Star noted in an editorial last April, many of the young low-income people were shut out of the current patchwork of free dental care programs, which were designed in such a way that many did not qualify. As a result, the money went unused and was conveniently siphoned off to pay for sports promotion programs.
That was a low point. It was also a far cry from the Liberals’ 2007 promise to provide a $45-million fund to low-income families after a Star investigation exposed the suffering of working poor adults who could not afford dental care.
Advocate Maund, of the Association of Ontario Health Centres, is right to remind the government that its attention should now turn to the adults who suffer with abscessed gums or remove aching teeth just to avoid the pain.
For Ontario’s low-income families, the government’s good step forward has the potential to be great.
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