WHITEHORSE — Yukon is offering $1,300 a year in dental benefits to eligible residents who don't have coverage under another plan, making it one of the most comprehensive programs in the country.
The program began Wednesday and will cover dental treatments necessary to relieve pain and infection, prevent disease, treat cavities and restore chewing and social function for an estimated 8,000 people, the government said in a news release.
It will also offer full coverage for preventive care, such as routine dental cleaning.
"The program is really important for Yukoners because good dental health care is, in fact, an integral part of health care," Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said in an interview.
A dental program was recommended as part of a 2020 review of the territory's health-care system and was part of the confidence agreement signed in 2021 with the Yukon NDP to keep the minority Liberal government in power.
NDP Leader Kate White said the program offers the broadest level of coverage in the country and is "an incredible step."
"In the 2021 territorial election it was one of the key platform things for us," she said in an interview Wednesday.
"We believe that everyone should have access to the dental health care that they need. It supports health care as a whole and for too long it's been not covered."
White said she has met with many Yukoners since she was elected in 2011 whose basic dental issues develop into something more serious because of lack of care.
In some cases, those people were able to get some help from the government, but there was never a clear path, she said.
"I had a senior friend who had horrific problems with her teeth and her mouth to the end. At the end of her life, she was surviving off of meal replacement shakes because she couldn't chew," she said.
"And no matter how hard I tried to push Yukon government, no matter how many letters I wrote to the Department of Health and Social Services, we weren't able to get what she needed covered."
To be eligible for the program, the applicant’s gross income must be $60,000 or less for individuals and $90,000 or less for those with two children, with progressive income increases for the size of the family.
Stephen Doyle, the government's director of insured health strategic planning, said the program is "right near the most comprehensive in the country, if not the most comprehensive" based on the range of people it covers and the amount of funds that are available.
Recipients pay nothing upfront until they have reached the $1,300 limit.
The government has earmarked $1.8 million for the program for the remainder of this fiscal year. McPhee said officials are in the middle of the budgeting process for 2023-24.
White said she hopes the program will be a step toward universal coverage.
"I'm just really looking forward to a future where, you know, people don't have to make the decision about whether or not they go to the dentist or they cover their basic cost of living."
McPhee said the program is "is designed to be virtually universal" and she doesn't believe many people will be missed when it is included with other dental programs available in the territory.
The plan comes a month after applications began for a separate federal children's dental program that offers up to $650 for children younger than 12 in families that earn less than $90,000 a year.
The federal NDP pushed for dental care and sick-day policies as part of an agreement to support the minority Liberals on major legislation and confidence votes until 2025.
In a statement, the Opposition Yukon Party said there are still questions about how this program will interact with the federal one, or if employers can or should remove the benefits that would now be covered by the government.
Still, the Yukon Party said it's hopeful providing more Yukoners access to dental care will help the overall health-care system.
— Ashley Joannou in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.
The Canadian Press