FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Social services leaders in Northeast B.C. say a federal plan for dental care and pharmacare could create profound improvements in the lives of seniors and low-income families in the region.

A deal to phase in a dental care program for families with annual income less than $90,000 is part of a confidence and supply agreement between the governing Liberals and NDP.

Children under 12 would be eligible starting later this year, but by 2023 the coverage would include 18-year-olds, seniors, and people living with disabilities. The program would be fully implemented by 2025, giving access to free dental care to the 6.5 million citizens currently going without.

Roxanne Chmelyk, president of the Fort St. John and Area Senior Care Foundation, says dental care costs are a financial barrier for many North Peace seniors, particularly those who need dentures.

Chmelyk says many seniors are on fixed or low incomes, and often choose more immediate expenses such as food and shelter over dentures and dental care. A full set of standard dentures can cost upwards of $2,000 or more.

“Any help monetarily for dental care and things like that would help seniors,” she said. “A lot of it is dental work, but a lot of it is false teeth.”

Chmelyk says a local fundraising initiative to support community members was attempted but abandoned when they realized they wouldn’t be able to raise the funds needed.

“It didn’t go very far because the costs are so high that the amount of money they had to raise was absolutely unreal,” said Chmelyk. “They just couldn’t do it because the fundraising just wasn’t there.”

In Dawson Creek, the story is similar. Linda Studley, co-ordinator of Better at Home, says many seniors struggle with the cost of dental care and dentures.

“Any assistance that will provide access to dental care for low income seniors would certainly be welcomed,” she said.

Jared Braun, executive director of the Salvation Army in Fort St. John, says dental care is a topic of concern for anyone coming through his doors, and knows many people struggle to afford it.

“I just know from interaction with people what a difference it makes when people are able to get their teeth worked on – sometimes people think it’s just about about making their smile nice or being able to chew better, but it has a psychological impact too,” he said.

Braun says improved oral health also improves general health through better nutrition, and allows clients to eat foods that might have been difficult before treatment.

“It might seem simple, dental, but it can have a really big impact in giving someone a sense of dignity and value, when they have that opportunity to get the work done.”

Amanda Trotter, executive director of the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, says dental care is a prerequisite to good physical health and that a federal plan would be a huge help to the health of her clients, especially those with children.

“A lot of our low-income clients would certainly benefit from this,” she said. “Dental care and dental care for kids is very expensive. It’s one of the things that get put on the back burner because of the costs involved with it.”

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will present this year’s federal budget on April 7.

“We have our own policies on that, so some of it we’ll have to see what they come out with,” said local MP Bob Zimmer. “We’ll see how this actually looks when it comes to legislation when the bill comes to the taxpayer.”