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Delivering new services 'complicated,' Freeland says of planned dental care program

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Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks to reporters before heading to Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — The government is working hard to meet its end-of-year deadline to deliver dental-care coverage to kids, the deputy prime minister said Tuesday, but added providing new services is "complicated."

The Liberals agreed to offer dental coverage to low- and middle-income children by the end of the year as part of their confidence and supply deal with the New Democrats to keep the minority government from toppling before 2025. 

Several groups have raised concerns about the very tight deadline, and four sources close to the program say the government is working on a temporary solution to give money directly to qualifying families while it comes up with a permanent program.

"As we experienced, for example, in rolling out child-care agreements across the country, delivering new services to Canadians is complicated," Freeland said when asked about the stopgap plan at a news conference in Toronto.

"I think Canadians understand that."

Freeland did not confirm or deny the government's immediate plans but said the Liberals are committed to the dental-care program, and it's a commitment she's "happy to make."

The government could pursue dental-care deals that resemble the ones it made with provinces to lower the cost of child care, in which it offered provincial governments money to administer their programs under a prescribed set of criteria. However, that route is looking increasingly unlikely.

Federal officials have also canvassed dental-health experts about other approaches. The government could contract out a national program to a private insurance firm or have federal public servants take on the work.

"Kids should not have their teeth get rotten just because their parents don't have enough money to pay for them to go see a dentist, I think it's as simple as that," Freeland said. 

The Liberals set aside $5.3 billion over five years to fully implement the program. They hope to start with children under the age of 12 with an annual household income of less than $90,000. 

Last week NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he was confident the dental-care program would come together by the end of the year, as outlined in the agreement with the Liberals. 

Freeland said the government is working "very, very hard" to make good on the promise to the NDP. The Liberals risk the NDP walking away from the supply and confidence agreement entirely if they don't.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press