Why dentists are concerned about the Canadian Dental Care Program

What patients and healthcare providers need to know

Recently, the Government of Canada announced the rollout of the 13-billion-dollar Canadian Dental Care Program (CDCP). The Canadian Dental Association (CDA) has long advocated for targeted investments to improve oral healthcare in Canada for people facing barriers to care. The federal government’s CDCP has the potential to dramatically improve oral health access for Canadians, particularly for vulnerable populations.

On January 31st, Health Minister Mark Holland reiterated his commitment that the CDCP would be fair to dentists, saying "I feel very confident that we will have something there that is fair to both patients and dentists." The federal government has some work to do to hold true to this pledge.

Over the past two years, the CDA has represented patients and the dental profession in conversations with Health Canada. CDA and the Provincial and Territorial Dental Associations’ (PTDAs) provided information on what is needed to ensure optimal oral healthcare for all Canadians. We have shared critical recommendations that will both improve the CDCP and enhance provider participation in the program. We've also been clear that the CDCP will only be successful if dentists provide care for eligible patients. The dentists I know want to treat patients who need access to care, but the CDCP must not impact the oral healthcare system by eroding the excellent care two-thirds of Canadians already receive.

Dentists across the country want the CDCP to be a success. Although the federal government has consulted with the CDA since the announcement, the program has not incorporated several of CDA’s key policy recommendations, such as: making sure any additional administrative procedures do not impact or delay the provision of care to patients; and ensuring the cost of treatment provided to patients is fully covered. CDA’s complete policy recommendations are outlined in our 2023 policy paper, Bridging the Financial Gap in Dental Care.

As it stands, the first six months of the program will be limited in its coverage. Many routine treatments will not be available to seniors who need this care the most. Health Canada needs to be clear with patients and providers regarding which services will and will not be covered to avoid confusion.

Canadians should be aware the CDCP does not provide free dental care. Currently, the costs for oral healthcare under the CDCP for patients are unclear; however, the government has set a fee schedule less than the usual and customary provincial and territorial fee guides. Canadians will not be 100% covered for their treatments and in many cases, will be required to pay out-of-pocket for a portion of their treatments.

Canadians should also be able to choose their preferred oral healthcare provider. Unlike traditional benefit plans, providers must sign up to the CDCP to treat patients. This is unique to the CDCP and is not a requirement for nearly all other public or private plans in Canada. CDCP patients deserve a simple program that will not create unnecessary barriers to access. When surveyed, nearly half of dentists (excluding Quebec) said they needed more details to make an informed decision about whether to participate in the program. It is anticipated very few dentists will want to commit to any program that does not provide clear terms and conditions. What are CDCP patients supposed to do if their regular dentist opts not to participate? CDCP patients deserve the same options as Canadians with private insurance, who have access to any dentist who is accepting new patients. As CDA president and a practicing dentist, I know it’s critical that the CDCP respects existing dentist-patient relationships and fosters development of new patient-dentist relationships with underserved Canadians. It is vital that participation in the CDCP is simple for both patients and providers.

My recommendation for patients is to become fully informed about the CDCP and to ask their dental office if they are planning to participate. Patients are also encouraged to carefully consider the impact of dropping their current dental insurance. Dropping existing coverage will render them ineligible for CDCP.

The introduction of the CDCP represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make significant improvements to oral health for millions of Canadians. Given that this is such a complex, ambitious and challenging program to implement, we acknowledge Minister Holland’s commitment to continue to improve the plan right up to and after launch. However, the federal government must get it right by empowering dentists to focus on what they do best—caring for their patients' oral health.

Dr. Heather Carr is President of the Canadian Dental Association

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