Last week a “Confidence and Supply agreement” was negotiated between the Liberal minority government and the NDP. While the politicos and pundits gnash the means of this cooperation between two parties, it is important to look at the benefit of some of the ends – primarily two health care measures long-needed and never delivered: dental and pharma-care.
Lack of access to dental care and prescription medicine has a negative impact on the overall health care system in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, more than one-third of Canadians do not have dental coverage of any kind. A person without dental coverage is three times more likely to avoid going to the dentist because of the cost. Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to avoid going to the dentist because of the cost and lack of dental coverage. Similar access issues exist with prescription medicine as well. One-in-10 Canadians will not fill a needed prescription due to cost. One-in-four households cannot afford needed medications. Canada is the only industrialized country with a universal health care system that does not cover prescription medications.
Choosing between the essentials (housing, food) and health is a choice no one should have to make. Not having universal access for dental care and prescription medicine increases the burden on the health care system by treating the symptoms of declining health outcomes rather than preventing them in the first place.
It is not going to be easy to put a universal dental and pharma-care program in place. Health care is a provincial responsibility. Negotiating any agreement between the federal government and 13 provincial /territorial governments is difficult. It took over a year for an agreement on a national affordable childcare program. Health care agreements between these two levels of government are more contentious. It does not mean it is not important to do.
According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the two programs – largely based off the NDP’s 2021 election platform – are estimated to cost $11 billion per year once fully implemented. Compared to the over $300 billion in health care spending by governments in Canada, it amounts to an overall spending increase of less than five per cent.
There is a long term savings to be gained by adding these two parts to the universal health care system. Switching from a reactionary to a preventative health care model will lower acute care costs by preventing some disease. Removing dental and prescription costs will eliminate the difficult choice between basic necessities or health care. And it will improve overall quality of life for Canadians. In this case, while the means are still being worked out, the ends are well justified.