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Feds take first step toward creating stand-alone insurance program for dental care

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is moving toward providing dental-care insurance directly to qualifying Canadians, rather than working with provinces and territories to bolster existing coverage.
A dentist attends to a child at a family clinic in Asuncion, Paraguay, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Health department officials say the federal government plans to hire a third-party company to process claims for its new dental-care insurance program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jorge Saenz

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is moving toward providing dental-care insurance directly to qualifying Canadians, rather than working with provinces and territories to bolster existing coverage.

That will involve hiring an external company to process claims for the new stand-alone insurance program, Health Canada officials told The Canadian Press. On Friday, the Procurement Department invited companies with experience in those claims to apply for pre-qualification.

Health Canada officials, who gave a briefing on the condition they not be named publicly, said that would help the government refine the program before hiring a company to do the work.

They are still working on the details, but the officials said the dental-care coverage in the new program will closely reflect the benefits programs for First Nations, Inuit, refugees and veterans, who fall within federal jurisdiction for health care.

The decision to move ahead with a federally administered program comes at a difficult time for federal-provincial relations, as some provinces stress the importance of defending their autonomy from an incursion on their constitutional jurisdiction.

On Thursday, for example, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith published a memo to her cabinet ministers, instructing them to push for unconditional transfers in their dealings with the federal government, rather than allowing Ottawa to set the terms of federally funded programs.

In the memo, she specifically criticized a lack of consultation with Alberta on the federal dental-care plans.

"Too often, Ottawa only seek input on the implementation of their unilateral policies," Smith wrote in the memo, which she posted to her Twitter feed.

Some dental professionals, including the Canadian Dental Association, have advocated for the federal government to work with provinces and territories to strengthen existing provincial programs, but NDP health critic Don Davies said that would take too long.

The Liberals committed to some form of federal dental-care coverage for low-income Canadians in its March confidence and supply agreement with the New Democrats.

The deal would see the opposition party support the minority government on key votes through to 2025, in exchange for pursuing some NDP priorities.

"It was the NDP that said this has to be a 100-per-cent federally funded, 100-per-cent federally administered plan, because there's no other way that we could meet the time deadlines," Davies said in an interview Friday.

Initially, the NDP expected there would be a full-fledged insurance program in place by the end of 2022 for children under the age of 12 with a household income below $90,000.

This fall, the tight timeline prompted the Liberals and NDP to compromise and create aninterim benefit program, which would allow the government to issue cheques to families who qualify while work continues on the federal insurance program.

Bill C-31, which would give children with families who make less than $90,000 a year as much as $650 per child to care for their teeth, passed third reading in the House of Commons on Thursday night. Officials said they hope to be able to launch the benefit on Dec. 1, but the timing depends on how long it takes to get through the Senate and receive royal assent.

"This is a first step, an interim benefit," Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said of Bill C-31 during his appearance at the House of Commons health committee on Monday.

"There will be a second program … that will be better suited to the dental-health care that other Canadians, including the younger children, will need over time, that includes seniors, people with disabilities, people with relatively low- or middle-income ranges."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said he wants to see that program in place by the end of 2023, which is when the confidence and supply agreement said everyone under the age of 18, seniors and people living with disabilities would qualify for coverage.

The deal said full implementation would come by 2025.

The Health Canada officials said the timing of the new program will depend on how the procurement process unfolds, but the NDP is holding firm to the deadline.

"We are very confident and continue to be confident that an actual dental-care plan can and must be in place by the end of 2023," Davies said. "It's a question of political will and an effective administration."

The application process for companies to pre-qualify for the dental-care contract is expected to last about six weeks. After that, up to three companies will be considered for the job.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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