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Canadians face three times more health-care debt than Australians, survey shows

Canadians face an average of more than $US6,000 in medical debt, largely driven by dental bills and prescription medication, a new poll has found
The poll comes as Canada moves to install a new universal dental plan. | Peter Cade/Stone/Getty Images

Almost one in six Canadians are in debt because of health-care costs, owing more than triple that of Australians, according to a recent cross-country survey.

The poll, which sampled 3,000 people across Canada, the U.S. and Australia, found Canadians faced the second highest amount of debt after the U.S.

Dental checkups and prescription medications were the most likely sources of health-care debt for all three countries, according to the PureProfile survey carried out on behalf of Compare the Market.

Health care-related expenses pushed 17.5 per cent of Canadians and 15.5 per cent of the Australians into debt, according to the poll.

Younger generations from both countries were most likely to go into debt. The poll found Canada had the widest gender gap in health care-related debt among the three countries: 20 per cent of Canadian women had gone into debt for medical bills, compared to 15 per cent of men.

Respondents from the two Commonwealth countries — both of which have systems of universal health — faced lower health-care debt than the U.S., where respondents owed an average of US$9,358. Americans between 45 and 54 faced the highest debt levels with 45 per cent facing outstanding medical bills.

In second place, Canadians averaged US$6,022 in health-care debt, while Australians owed about a third of that, averaging US$2,082 in unpaid medical bills, the survey found.

Canada moves toward universal dental plan

The poll comes as Canada moves to implement a universal dental care plan for children and low-income families.

In Canada, universal access to dental care is set to be fully implemented by 2025. Children under the age of 12 who are from lower-income families are currently eligible to receive a children's dental benefit through the Canada Revenue Agency. Rolled out last fall, the benefit provides families with up to $650 per child and was the first step toward creating a national dental care program, a key promise in the Liberals' confidence-and-supply agreement with the NDP.

The current benefit is available to families whose household income is less than $90,000 a year and ranges from $260 to $650 per child, depending on net income. The federal government estimates 500,000 children will benefit from the support, which is available in two periods until June 30, 2024.

This year, it's expected the coverage will be expanded to teens, seniors and those living with a disability.

The Liberal government said the benefit is intended to provide cost-of-living relief to low-income Canadians.

Dentists urge caution not to undermine existing dental plans

Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer has said the current dental benefit is superficial and that handing out cash could contribute to inflation and make the cost of living worse.

Some have pointed to evidence that the programs need to be adjusted to ensure higher uptake. In April, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found only half of Canadians eligible for the Canada Dental Benefit actually received it.

The dental benefit was estimated to cost $352 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year, but only $156.3 million had been disbursed by the end of March, amounting to about 44 per cent.

Others have called on the federal government to ensure the new plan doesn’t undermine existing dental coverage.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Dental Association released a policy paper calling on the federal government to preserve private dental insurance programs and use existing clinics as part of Ottawa’s plan to provide universal dental care.

Dentists across Canada could see up to 9 million new patients as a result of the government's new universal dental care program, the report says, but it cautions that new policies are needed.

The recommendations include using existing dental offices, addressing staffing shortages so people don't have to endure long wait lists, ensuring that treatment costs are fully covered, and undertaking a survey on oral health.

The association also wants the government to explore incentivizing employers so they continue to offer dental insurance to workers.

"We are concerned that whatever the government brings out, it does not disrupt the current ecosystem of third-party employer-sponsored health benefits," Dr. Lynn Tomkins, the Canadian Dental Association president, told the Canadian Press earlier this year. 

"We wouldn't want to see you lose your dental plan."

With files from the Canadian Press