Established in 1974, the Blakeney government’s Saskatchewan Dental Plan provided universal dental care for children between the ages of 4 and 13. Although children’s dental plans were first introduced in Newfoundland in the 1950s and Prince Edward Island in 1971, Saskatchewan’s program was unique in terms of its organization. In particular, salaried dental therapists were at the core of a program that reached out to approximately 120,000 children in the province and dramatically raised the standard of dental care and hygiene to one of the highest in North America.
The origins of the Saskatchewan Dental Plan lay in the Saskatchewan Health Survey Committee. In 1951, the Committee reported that dental disease was one of the province’s most “extensive” medical problems. Some within the CCF wanted the government to follow in New Zealand’s path by creating a school-based dental plan run by dental nurses; but opposition from dentists, combined with the then-prevalent belief that dental nurses were not qualified to provide dental care, blocked change. By the 1971 provincial election campaign, however, the NDP was promising an insured dental care service for children. After much internal discussion and dispute over the implementation details, the program was finally introduced in September 1974.
The Saskatchewan Dental Plan team that traveled out to the province’s schools was made up of one dental therapist helped by a dental assistant performing preventative and corrective dentistry. Dentists working for the plan supervised from eight to ten teams each. While some concerns about the dental therapists were raised initially, an independent study of the Plan after its sixth year revealed that the quality of the work equaled or exceeded that performed by private practice dentists. In addition, the Plan resulted in Saskatchewan having the highest proportion of children receiving dental care in North America. Further, some of the treatment procedures adopted by the dental teams, including the wearing of masks and rubber gloves, eventually became the standard for dental care in Canada and the United States.
The Saskatchewan Dental Plan attracted international attention and was emulated in other jurisdictions—including Manitoba, which implemented a dental plan for its residents outside the city of Winnipeg in 1976. Despite its success, the Saskatchewan Plan was terminated by the Devine government in June 1987. School dental outreach was turned over to private dentists, and the Plan’s 400 employees were laid off.
Gregory P. Marchildon