One-third of Ontario workers lack medical, dental benefits: study
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One-third of Ontario employees receive no medical and dental benefits through their workplace, with low-income workers and women most likely to be excluded, according to a report to be released Tuesday.
The study by the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based health policy think-tank, shows that the vast majority of those in precarious or low-wage jobs do not have employer-provided health plans. The report notes that those workers are not often eligible for government-funded benefits either, leaving a significant gap in health coverage.
“We know that not having access to those services can have significant health impacts,” said Steve Barnes, a policy analyst at the Institute and co-author of the report.
“The way we operate our benefits systems at the moment, with this patchwork of public and private schemes, just means that people who are low earners are missing out.”
Overall, the research found that about 35 per cent of workers in the province do not have medical and dental coverage through their employer. The figures were much starker for low earners: about 85 per cent of those earning less than $10,000 receive no workplace health benefits, and about 70 per cent of those earning between $10,000 and $20,000 are not covered.
“If we continue to rely on employers to try and plug the gaps where public schemes don’t cover people, then this problem is likely to get larger in the future,” Barnes said.
The research was based on the latest available data from the Statistics Canada 2011 Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. Its findings also revealed that female employees in Ontario are less likely to have medical and dental benefits through work, with around 58 per cent of women covered, compared with about 67 percent of men.
Lynn Beamish, a 63-year-old single mother from Scarborough, has spent much of her life in self-employment or precarious jobs. She has never had a medical or dental plan. After years of swallowing the cost herself, she wants change.
“There’s a lot of single mums out there who are out there on their own . . . I tip my hat off to them to try and go out there working, and trying to make ends meet and (not) have all the extra benefits at their workplace. I definitely think there should be something in place.”
Previous research by the Worker’s Action Centre, a labour rights group, found 71 per cent of employees in precarious work had no health benefits. Deena Ladd, the organization’s co-ordinator, said a universal system is needed to substitute for businesses “not up to the task” of providing benefits coverage.
The Wellesley Institute’s policy solutions include creating a national PharmaCare program.
It argues that Ontario should return to making routine eye checks universally available through OHIP. It also says Ontario should expand public dental coverage to fund care for low-income adults and seniors through the province’s public health units.
The study will give fresh momentum to the Ontario government’s poverty reduction plans. In its 2014 budget, the provincial government expanded eligibility for the Healthy Smiles program, which provides dental care to low-income children of working parents. It also proposed access to health benefits for about 500,000 more children in low-income families.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins has also been vocal in supporting universal drug coverage in Canada, which he argues would be cheaper and would reduce inequality.
With federal elections around the corner, Dr. Danielle Martin of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto said now is the time for provincial leaders to urge their federal counterparts to take action on PharmaCare.
“I’m feeling very optimistic and very energized, because I actually think we do have a window of opportunity opening on this issue.”