Ontario’s political parties are busy making promises about key benefits issues as they prepare for this June’s election campaign, with the governing Liberals announcing a plan expand the OHIP+ pharmacare program to seniors and the New Democratic Party proposing action on dental care.

On Tuesday, just days after the Ontario NDP pledged universal pharmacare and dental coverage should the party win the election, the Liberal government announced its plan to allow those aged 65 and over to use their provincial health card for drug prescriptions as of Aug. 1, 2019. As a result, they’ll no longer have to pay a deductible or copayment for prescriptions drugs covered by the province.

The move follows the government’s throne speech on Monday that hinted at changes to drug programs. In the speech, Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell noted that in the 2018 budget, Ontarians would see major investments in health care, including when it comes to drug coverage. “OHIP+, the pharmacare program that is providing free medications for children and youth, will be expanded to include other parts of the population,” said Dowdeswell. “More people without a drug or dental benefits plan will have access to more affordable prescription drugs and dental care.”

Have your say: Should dental services be part of public health-care coverage?

The throne speech’s reference to drug and dental care followed NDP platform proposals on the weekend that also dealt with the issue. Under the NDP’s proposed dental care plan, all Ontarians will have coverage, with working people and their families covered through their employer and all other Ontarians covered through a public plan.

For all employed people — including part-time workers, contractors, freelancers and people working in non-traditional settings — a publicly administered program called Ontario Benefits would create a minimum standard for dental plans that will apply to all employers. Businesses could meet the standard by participating in the program or choosing a comparable workplace benefits plan, according to a news release.

The promises raise a number of questions for plan sponsors. According to Yafa Sakkejha, general manager of Toronto-based Beneplan Inc., plan sponsors will be looking at the NDP promises with some skepticism.

Read: Ontario NDP platform to include pharmacare, dental benefits for all workers

“To look at the NDP platform, a plan sponsor now is going to look at it really skeptically and say, ‘OK, if you’re going to save money for me, great, but you’re going to have to find that money somewhere and are you going to increase the employer health tax that I pay on payroll?’ Where’s that money coming from?” she says.

She suggests the big question for plan sponsors is whether the government is the best custodian of funds for drug and dental benefits.

“Again, I think the plan sponsor is always happy to hear that their costs could decrease, but then the big question is where is this money coming from? Because plan sponsors, they pay roughly two per cent of payroll towards the employer health tax. They’re saying again, is the government the best custodian of this money or are we the best custodians of this money?”

Another concern, she notes, surrounds the ability of plan sponsors to receive refunds on premiums if drug and dental claims are less than expected. “This is through self-insurance or refund accounting. But will the government refund premiums or taxes to companies if claims come in under their projected worst-case scenario of $475 million for drugs, as an example?” she asks, referencing the NDP’s proposal for drug coverage. The party is proposing a program that would start with universal coverage of 125 essential medications.

Read: National pharmacare strategy to preserve existing system: Morneau

For Shawn Leslie, president and chief executive officer of the Leslie Group Ltd., the NDP’s plan for dental coverage would represent another cost to businesses. Even a modest cost under the proposed Ontario Benefits program for employees without coverage would add up when multiplied across several workers, he notes. “And so my guess is it’s going to have some cost impact, but without all the details, we don’t really know. But ultimately, at the end of the day, in a competitive environment with everything that’s already been pushed on them with the changes, is the timing good for this right now?”

When it comes to the Liberals’ plan to extend OHIP+ to seniors, the change will eliminate the deductible and copayments seniors pay under the current Ontario Drug Benefit program. The Ontario government says it will invest about $575 million by 2020/21 to align its seniors benefits with the OHIP+ program for those under 25 years of age.

Read: Youth pharmacare plan’s growing pains creating challenges for some patients

The question of dental coverage is the subject of Benefits Canada‘s weekly online poll. Should dental services be part of public health-care coverage? Don’t forget to have your say.