Time For Medicare to Open Wide

Illustration by Abdel Saied

It was a mildly funny story disguised as a warning. An acquaintance told me about a friend who recently graduated from post-secondary school and asked for a trip to the dentist as a Christmas gift.

Most post-secondary students have dentist visits covered by their school’s insurance, but those in the workforce are often not so lucky. Full-time employees may receive a benefits package that includes regular dental cleanings, but those who are stringing together part-time work, freelancing, or self-employment must budget hundreds of dollars for oral care, as Medicare does not cover anything beyond emergency oral surgery performed in a hospital. 
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a story about a cash-strapped millennial, but the implications go beyond a boring Christmas present. Oral health is essential to overall health. Lack of regular preventive care can lead to much larger problems, such as periodontal disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems, and poor nutrition.

Social impacts can be equally harmful, as those with dental issues report avoiding  speaking, smiling, even socializing because of their condition.

Getting a job can be nearly impossible for someone with noticeable teeth problems.
The health care system is further bottle-necked by preventable problems when dental health falls through the cracks of Medicare.

Hundreds of thousands of visits to physicians per year have been attributed to teeth and gum problems. These problems can only be effectively treated by dentists, but those who cannot afford a dentist turn to a family physician, which costs a lot in time and money, without improving oral health in any real way.

Covering dentist visits under OHIP would free up cash and reduce the demand on already overstretched family physicians. Besides, regular dental visits are more affordable than emergency room visits, dental surgeries, and treatment of related diseases, such as diabetes.
We often boast about Canada’s health care coverage compared to that of the United States, but compared to many developed nations, Canada is still way behind. Britain, France, and Norway each spend more on healthcare than we do, and Finland and Sweden include dental care as part of their health care funding.

In 2015, $13.6 billion  were spent on dental services in Canada, only 6% of which was was covered by public funding. The rest was covered by private insurance or paid out-of-pocket.

Canadians spent a total $5.1 billion from their own pockets, to pay for dental care in 2015. Imagine how much our quality of life would increase if that money stayed in our pockets because dental care was covered by OHIP or Medicare funding.

Maybe then we could afford the insulin and prescriptions that have also been left out of public funding and which cost individuals thousands of dollars per year. 

Kimberly Northcote is a resident of Peel Region who holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Public Policy from the University of Guelph, as well as a diploma in Visual and Creative Arts from Sheridan.

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