Fifty-six years after Canada introduced Medicare, an important part of our body continues to be neglected: the mouth.

That’s because dental care was never included under Medicare.

It should be.

Scientific evidence suggests that having an unhealthy mouth could be contributing to chronic diseases of the heart, lung, and stomach as well as being a risk factor for diabetes.

The effects of chronic poor oral health can be physically debilitating and socially incapacitating. It can affect a person’s ability to eat healthy foods, to sleep, to work and to maintain social connections.

Yet, the Canadian Health Measures Survey found that only 75 per cent of Canadians have third-party dental insurance coverage. And even for those lucky people, we still don’t know what the level of coverage for the average Canadian is or what those families pay for oral health care each year.

Even when Canadians are covered by private dental insurance, there is still an undeniable inequity in access to dental care because there is no public policy defining what basic employment dental benefits should be.

Dental benefits vary widely and workers depend on the effectiveness of unions in negotiations and on the company’s generosity. In some companies, the benefits differ depending on the level the employee is within the company.

Further, there are no national or provincial policies to control the premiums that employers pay and the co-payment that employees pay to the care provider. Nor is there any regulation outlining basic services that should be covered by all employee benefit packages.

That’s important, because even partial dental care coverage can leave lower-income families priced out of the market.

For example, a family earning $30,000 a year might be eligible for half of the dental costs through their work benefits plan. But if dental treatment on a single tooth costs $1,000, how can they afford it?

While everyone would benefit from access to primary dental care, some groups in particular would especially benefit from a national universal dental care program.

Indigenous children, for example, have on average five times the cavity rates of other Canadians.

The unemployed and those working in the gig economy or in precarious jobs without health benefits also need universal dental care.

And as more and more boomers retire and lose their workplace benefits, the number of Canadians without employer-covered benefits will only increase.

The fact is, it is government’s responsibility to provide the tools and environment necessary for all citizens to be healthy.

If we consider that one of the requisites for good general health is a healthy mouth, then the current exclusion of primary oral health care from Medicare contravenes the principle of the Canada Health Act.

That act says Canadians should have access to health services on the basis of need, not ability to pay.

It is time for the federal government, in partnership with their provincial counterparts, to ensure every Canadian can access necessary dental care.

While, previous governments have shied away from implementing universal dental care because of the cost, the reality is that we’re paying more to treat the health consequences of dental neglect that we would if we invested in primary dental care.

This fall’s federal election is a golden opportunity for us to press all political parties to include universal dental care in their election platforms.

At a bare minimum, Canadians who cannot afford to pay for primary mouth care, such as the treatment of infections or injuries to the mouth, should have this necessary component of health care covered.

It is impossible to be in good health without a healthy mouth. It’s time to include dental care as part of Canada’s Medicare plan.

Dr. Hazel Stewart is the former director of dental and oral health care for Toronto Public Health.