Critics are saying that the benefit is not exactly what was advertised and could lead to even more administrative hurdles for parents
OTTAWA — The new Canada Dental Benefit was “rushed” to meet a “self-imposed artificial deadline” set by the deal between the Liberals and the NDP, and could actually end up discouraging some parents from applying, says an expert in tax policies.
Jennifer Robson, associate professor and program director of political management at Carleton University, said in an interview that the benefit might not live up to people’s hopes and expectations in making it easier for low- and moderate-income families to afford dental care for their children.
“I think it could discourage a lot of parents who might actually be the ones in need from applying,” she said. “You have to have filed a tax return, you have to be able to navigate the kind of government bureaucratic systems. So, some people are just gonna just select out and say, ‘You know what, it’s not worth it to me.’”
The benefit, which was made available as of Dec. 1, provides eligible parents or guardians with up to $650 per child under 12 years of age to cover annual dental expenses. It is exclusively available to families without private dental insurance and whose income is under $90,000.
But to receive the benefit, parents must have filed a 2021 tax return and must currently be receiving the Canada Child Benefit (CCB). They must also provide details of their child’s dental provider and expected appointment date when they apply through the online portal.
The last federal budget promised $5.3 billion over five years for dental care for Canadians, but the government quickly realized implementing a national program would take a lot more time, as it requires negotiations with all provinces and territories.
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It opted to create the Canada Dental Benefit instead to make good on a promise to the New Democrats to provide dental care for children under 12 before the end of the year. In return, the New Democrats pledged their support to keep the minority Liberals in power until the election in 2025.
“This all comes back to the fact that there was this kind of self-imposed artificial deadline through the confidence-and-supply agreement,” said Robson. “There’s actually no external reason why it is absolutely essential that this benefit become available today. But that’s the deadline they set for themselves, and then they had to meet it.
“They made a thing. It exists. They can point to it and say, ‘Look, there is a benefit available that has many of the characteristics and qualities outlined in that agreement and was delivered before the end of the calendar year as promised.’”
Speaking in London, Ont., on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boasted about the new benefit while not mentioning that it was a condition of his deal with the NDP.
“Our government has always been committed to supporting families and today, we’re delivering real change,” he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, on the other hand, promoted the new benefit on social media and offered to help parents walk through the online portal by text message — in exchange for their data and personal information.
“The NDP fought hard for dental care and I want everyone to know about it,” he said.
But critics are saying that the benefit is not exactly what was advertised and could lead to even more administrative hurdles, causing parents to simply not opt in.
In a recent interview, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said the benefit looked more “like a supplement to the CCB than a dental program” since parents have to attest that they have either paid dental fees for their children or that they plan on doing so. They do not have to submit receipts.
“The amount paid by the government is not related in any way, shape or form to the actual out-of-pocket amount that families will pay for their kids,” said Giroux.
Robson said that the government is setting up the Canada Revenue Agency to verify some “fairly detailed” information about people’s lives that they usually do not have access to.
“Does the Canada Revenue Agency know who does and does not have dental coverage through their work? No, they don’t, and they don’t really have an easy way of finding that out either,” she said.
“Does the Canada Revenue Agency know about the details of, for example, in parenting agreements about which parents agree to cover kids for dental coverage? No, they don’t have that right. And verifying all of that it’s going to be really intrusive,” she added.
Giroux agreed that the way the program is designed makes the CRA’s job — which involves verification of the recipients’ eligibility and applying penalties such as repayments or fines — “more difficult than it has to be.”
“It puts them in the unenviable position of going after people that may not have qualified in the first place. (…) It puts even more of a burden on them and an onus on them to administer these programs responsibly from a fiscal perspective.”
Robson said it is “probably a good thing” that the benefit for dental care is offered on an interim basis since a more sustainable solution would necessarily have to involve the provinces.
“Good policy design takes time. (…) So let’s hope that the next phase of the plan is better thought out, and more sustainable.”
With files from Christopher Nardi and Jamie Golombek
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