A new national dental-care plan denies independent hygienists equal reimbursement for the same services offered in dentists' offices — and the federal health minister said this week he isn't convinced by the rationale that led to that disparity. 

Reimbursement rates vary from province to province, but the newly launched program pays significantly less for a cleaning that happens at a private hygiene clinic.

Now that the program has launched, the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association is raising its concerns about the plan with new urgency. 

"I’m concerned about that too," Health Minister Mark Holland said Tuesday. "I haven’t been convinced by the rationale defending it."

The uneven treatment was copied over from a federal benefit program for First Nations and Inuit, Holland said. 

The fee guides for the new federal dental plan closely mirror those for the long-standing program for Indigenous Peoples. 

Holland said he is looking into it, and the CEO of the hygienists' association says the minister has committed to make a change.

"He has assured us, and his office has assured us, that they will be looking at implementing pay parity," said CEO Ondina Love.

"We haven't been given a timeline."

Independent hygienists are being paid less in the meantime. 

On average, they are reimbursed 15 per cent less than dentists' offices for the same services, Love said.

Holland said he wants to be able to give hygienists more certainty "very soon." 

Their work it integral to the success of the program, particularly in rural and remote areas of the country, he said.

"Even as we’re seeing huge numbers of dentists join this plan, which is so exciting, there are a lot of communities where they just don’t have enough folks, so oral hygienists are going to be a big part of that solution," Holland said.

The dental program began accepting claims earlier this month, and 25,000 seniors have received care under the program so far. 

The program is a key pillar of the Liberals' political pact with the NDP, and is expected to eventually offer government-sponsored coverage to all uninsured families with an annual income under $90,000 per year.

The government has gradually expanded eligibility to enrol in the program since late 2023. 

It’s expected to cost $13 billion over five years and eventually benefit nearly nine million Canadians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.