'Trolling for conflict': Federal health minister says Alberta premier playing politics on dental care

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith's announcement that the province will opt out of the federal government's dental care plan by 2026 has elicited a sharp response from the federal health minister.

"I think this is politics. And it's too bad, because this is about people's well-being," Mark Holland said Wednesday afternoon on CBC's Power and Politics.

"It seems to be trolling for conflict, and I don't think that's helpful."

In a Tuesday letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Smith announced the province's intention to pull out of the program, saying it infringes on provincial jurisdiction.

She said she wants to negotiate getting Alberta's share of the federal funding in order for the province to expand dental care coverage as it sees fit.

"Alberta has long maintained that it would be more effective to expand existing provincial programs than to introduce a new federal plan," Smith wrote in the letter, saying that about half a million Albertans already benefit from provincial coverage.

Asked to react to Holland's comments at a news conference on Wednesday, Smith didn't specifically respond to the minister but said the federal plan was brought in with no provincial consultation and essentially duplicates the coverage already available in Alberta.

"We have one of the best dental coverage plans in the country," said Smith.

"I don't think there's any point in having a parallel program, and they should have consulted with us, quite frankly."

Minister of Health Mark Holland listens to a speaker during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Health Minister Mark Holland says Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is playing politics with people's well-being by threatening to pull out of the federal dental care plan. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Holland said he is willing to work with Alberta on improvements to the federal program, which he describes as "incredibly successful."

"Providers are loving it. They're signing up in droves. They're finding it easier to use than private insurance. They're finding it far easier to use than any provincial program they've participated in," he said.

But he says that he'd like to see the focus shifted from "politics" to "results."

"I would say to Premier Smith, work with us, you know, don't seek the conflict, seek the solution," said Holland.

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange's office said in a statement that the Canadian Dental Care Plan duplicates coverage provided by Alberta's low-income dental programs.

But the association representing Alberta dentists pushed back on that assertion in a statement Wednesday.

"It is true that Alberta's existing dental programs are among the most diverse in the country, but they are outdated and often limit timely access to oral health care for patients," said the Alberta Dental Association.

The association said opting out of the federal program would make an already complex situation even more confusing for both patients and dentists.

In a message posted to X on Wednesday afternoon, Smith defended the province's dental coverage.

"Alberta already has the most extensive, publicly funded dental coverage in Canada, benefiting over 500,000 Albertans. The new federal program is inferior, wasteful and infringes on provincial jurisdiction," she said in the post.

The federal program — set to cost $13 billion over five years — began covering seniors in May and is being expanded to all those under 18 and people with disabilities beginning Thursday.

Previously, children under 12 were covered by an interim benefit, which is being phased out this month as the new coverage kicks in.

Participating in the federal program is voluntary for dentists.

The Canadian Dental Association has been sparring with the federal government over the details of the plan, saying confusion over what is covered and who qualifies has added extra pressure at dental offices and undermines patient care.

Alberta New Democrat health critic Luanne Metz said Wednesday some Albertans have coverage, but many, including seniors and children, do not.

"Smith needs to put aside her beef with the federal government and start caring about you. This is the right thing to do. Give us the dental plan that we need," she told reporters in Edmonton.

Metz acknowledged there are flaws in how the federal program has been rolled out and communicated but said they can be fixed.

"That does not mean that we should deny people the benefits of the program."