In bid to win over dentists, Ottawa changes billing for dental-care plan

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OTTAWA — In a bid to win over dentists who have been reluctant to join the federal dental-care plan, the health minister announced Monday that dentists can now “dip a toe” in the program before fully committing.

The change was first announced in April, after dental associations raised concerns about the design of the program and their members were slow to sign up to provide care.

“It’s essential that every provider be signed up in the country,” Health Minister Mark Holland said at a press conference in Nova Scotia on Monday.

So far, just shy of 50 per cent of dental professionals in Canada have signed up, he said.

Nova Scotia is particularly “behind” when it comes to signing up dental professionals, Holland said, especially in rural and remote areas.

And while he said sign-ups have begun to ramp up, he hopes the new process will see more dentists accepting the new government coverage.

The program was a condition of the Liberals’ political pact with the New Democrats, and is intended for uninsured people with a household income of less than $90,000 per year.

For months, dentists have been raising concerns about how the program affects their businesses. The government has tweaked it accordingly, but last month Holland suggested the dental associations were “actively seeking” problems.

The latest change would allow dentists to submit claims on a one-off basis without having to formally enrol as a provider under the program. The change would give providers the freedom to participate without having to register.

Holland maintains that once they’ve tried it out, they will see how straightforward and simple it is to take part.

But the new process doesn’t address the heart of the dentists’ concerns, because they still have to agree to the same terms and conditions either way, said Canadian Dental Association president Dr. Joel Antel.

“It really doesn’t change anything,” said Antel, who has not joined the program as part of his own practice.

“The concerns that were raised by the dental associations with the minister were related to the very long, complex list of terms and conditions that are quite disruptive to the smooth running of a dental office.”

Antel said dental associations are particularly concerned about the government’s ability to go back and reassess claims at a later date.

Holland said the terms and conditions are fairly standard, and the audits would only be carried out if there was a case of suspected fraud.

“Like any other agreement, there are terms and conditions. I can’t make those go away. I would rightfully be pilloried if there were no terms and conditions,” he said.

Dental associations have also asked the government to proactively inform patients that their coverage isn’t free, and that they will likely have to pay for some portion of the service out of pocket.

The Conservatives’ health critic has described the program as “riddled with chaos, backlogs and red tape.”

But Holland insisted it’s been remarkably successful.

“Every step forward, every new patient seen represents a huge important success,” Holland said. “I think we’ve got to be focusing on that consistent, steady progress forward.”

The government has processed nearly 250,000 dental claims for seniors enrolled in the program since the coverage launched in May.

Eligibility was recently expanded, and so far, roughly 10,000 people with disabilities and 25,000 children have applied for coverage.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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