Madam Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague for St. John's East for introducing the motion before us today and for his tireless advocacy in support of universal, public dental care in Canada.
Before I go further, I cannot let the completely incorrect comments of the member for Montarville go unremarked upon. He is absolutely 100% incorrect about the jurisdictional arguments he just made. As a matter of fact, health care has been defined by the Supreme Court of Canada as a shared jurisdiction and there is no mention whatsoever of health care in the Constitution. There is a reference in section 92 to the establishment, maintenance and management of hospitals. There is no question that hospitals fall under provincial jurisdiction, but health care has been ruled to be shared. That is, of course, why we have the Canada Health Act. My hon. colleague spent a long time trying to argue that the federal government cannot establish an expanded basket of services, but of course, the Canada Health Act is exactly what establishes coverage for health care in this country. Lest any Canadian watching this fall under the misapprehension that we cannot create an expanded basket of care to include dental services, the member needs to be corrected on that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the immeasurable value of Canada's public health care system into stark focus. Over 50 years ago, it was the aspiration and dedication of New Democrat Tommy Douglas and those inspired by him that built our present system, which ensures that every Canadian can access physician and hospital care anywhere in this country as a matter of right. This cherished institution defines us as a nation. It is an affirmation that we will take care of each other at our most vulnerable. It is a reflection of our commitment to equality and justice. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also served as a tragic reminder that our health care system is not perfect and it is not complete. Many important health services remain uncovered across Canada. For these, patients remain at the mercy of their ability to pay. This is contrary to Tommy Douglas's dream, which was to build a comprehensive system of health care.
The motion before us today would help address one of the most glaring and illogical gaps in our public system: dental care. Many Canadians may not know that dental care was envisioned to be part of our universal health care system when it was recommended in the 1960s. It was only the shortage of qualified dentists at the time that prevented it from being covered by our present system. This shortage was solved decades ago. By the way, there was no constitutional impediment to including it in the 1960s.
It would constitute an important interim measure toward the inclusion of full dental care in Canada's health care system. Indeed, the omission of dental coverage from our universal health care system is both a pressing public health concern and a social justice issue. There is simply no logical reason whatsoever for excluding oral health from universal coverage. It is as important a part of overall health as care for any other part of our body. Oral health diseases are some of the most prevalent chronic diseases in Canada, yet they are largely preventable.
There are also links between poor oral health and the severity of serious health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory infections. In fact, recent research from McGill University has found that those with poor dental hygiene tend to experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The most common surgery performed on preschool children at most pediatric hospitals in Canada is for the treatment of dental decay. In seniors, poor oral health is a risk factor for aspiration pneumonia, dehydration and infirmity, yet many retirement home and long-term care facility residents do not receive adequate oral health care due to cost and access issues. It affects pregnant women, leading to low birth weight and premature births.
Numbers cannot quantify the pain, social impacts and economic losses suffered by those with untreated dental problems, often for life. However, some 33% of Canadians, or 12 million Canadians, have no dental insurance and nearly 7 million Canadians avoid the dentist every year because of the cost. The economic impacts of COVID-19 have made things worse. Millions of people have lost their jobs and with them their employment-sponsored benefits. Unsurprisingly, this has hurt low-income and marginalized Canadians the most. Canada's most vulnerable people have the highest rates of dental decay and disease, but the worst access to oral health care services. Indigenous populations have nearly twice as much dental disease as non-indigenous Canadians, and income-related inequalities in oral health are greater in women than in men.
Moreover, at a time when their wages have flatlined and their job prospects grown increasingly insecure, young people have also seen benefits like dental insurance rapidly scaled back or eliminated by employers. As a result, Canadians aged 18 to 34 are the most likely group to report cost as a barrier to dental care.
If we can agree that everyone in Canada should have equal access to health care, regardless of their age, income or job status, then we cannot justify the continued exclusion of oral health care. That is why, during the last election, Canada's New Democrats put forward a plan to provide dental coverage to uninsured Canadians with household incomes below $90,000 as a first step, a down payment, toward universal public dental care.
In fall 2019, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated this program would provide immediate help to 4.3 million people. However, an updated PBO costing analysis conducted at my request and released in October 2020, revealed that the need for this program has grown dramatically. The PBO estimated that 6.5 million Canadians would now benefit from the proposed program.
Under the NDP's plan, there would be no cost for individuals with a household income under $70,000 and copayments would be required at a sliding scale for those with a household income up to $90,000. The minimum basket of services covered would comprise a full range of necessary services, from diagnostics to prevention and restorative services. The program would be administered by the federal government, or by provinces and territories, upon agreement, and existing provincial and territorial programs that provide the same services would continue.
At their first meeting following the 2019 election, the leader of the NDP pressed the Prime Minister to work across party lines in this minority Parliament to implement dental care for all Canadians. I was pleased to see the government acknowledge this NDP priority in the 2019 Speech from the Throne. I was heartened to see that the Minister of Health's mandate letter from the Prime Minister contained a specific direction to work with Parliament to study and analyse the possibility of national dental care. Unfortunately the Liberal government has failed to take any action on this commitment to date.
In fact, when New Democrats put forward a motion to fund our dental care plan by adjusting a proposed tax break for those earning $100,000 a year or more, the Liberals voted it down. When we put forward a plan to fund dental care and other essential programs by taxing the windfalls reaped by pandemic profiteers and the ultrarich, the Liberals voted it down. Today we have an opportunity once again to move forward on universal public dental care in Canada. Let us not squander this moment.
To those who claim we cannot afford to establish this urgently needed program, I will offer them some perspective. The PBO estimates that ongoing program costs for the NDP's dental care plan would average $1.5 billion per year. That is not counting the savings that accrue when we keep Canadians out of emergency rooms in this country for dental pain, which is estimated to cost us at least $150 million per year, without even providing the appropriate care.
Canada as a whole spends about $265 billion each year on health care. That means we can cover every Canadian who does not currently have dental care for about half of one per cent. I would also note we could easily pay for this program by cancelling just a fraction of the fossil fuel subsidies we currently provide to big oil companies, if we asked Canadians if they would rather their tax dollars go to essential dental care or to Imperial Oil or Royal Dutch Shell.
Oral health is not a luxury. If we could marshal hundreds of billions of dollars in fiscal firepower to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, surely we can afford to devote a small fraction of those resources to support the long-term oral health of Canadians. Universal public dental care was first recommended in Canada by the “Royal Commission on Health Services, 1961-1964 ”. Canadians have waited long enough. Access to medically necessary dental care should be a right in this country, not a privilege. It is time to roll up our sleeves and begin the work necessary to make this overdue health care service a reality for all Canadians. Our predecessors stood in this place and got medicare established in Canada. It is time we did the same for dental care, so let us stand together and take the first step today. Canadians are counting on us.