Lack of provincial dental coverage a sore spot
Nearly 500 dental-related visits to Haliburton Hospital in 2012
|By Alex Coop - Staff Writer | March 2, 2017|
There were 472 dental-related visits to the Haliburton Highlands Hospital in 2012, costing the health care system $513 per visit while providing little relief for patients, according to the Ontario Oral Health Alliance – Kawartha Haliburton Brock Chapter.
The statistics reflect a disturbing trend across the province, where about one in five people don’t visit the dentist due to financial barriers.
Local agencies such as the Volunteer Dental Outreach for Haliburton County (VDO) have absorbed more than 700 patients who qualify through a financial screening process, amounting to about $1,930,277.79 in free dental care since 2011.
But more needs to be done at a provincial level, says Anna Rusak, oral health promoter for the HKPR District Health Unit.
“I’ve worked here for about 12 years and it’s always been a problem,” Rusak said. “We’ve been lucky to have the VDO … and low-cost dental care in Lindsay, but at the same time, I don’t see much improvement.”
Government spending on oral health services represents only 1.3 per cent of all health spending in Ontario, the lowest among Canadian provinces, according to Public Health Ontario.
Trips to the hospital do little to solve patients’ dental problems, says Rusak. Antibiotics to minimize the pain are usually the only item doctors can provide in those situations.
The signatures of 1,050 people in the Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton and Brock area have been collected on a petition that’s been making its rounds around the area since last fall.
It asks for publicly-funded dental programs to be expanded to adults and seniors.
Local MPP Laurie Scott is planning on presenting the petition to the Ontario Legislature in the near future.
“There’s no question that dental health is imperative to your overall health, and even confidence in yourself,” Scott said, adding she had several in-depth discussions about the lack of public dental programs for adults and seniors with local health and social service agencies, including SIRCH.
“I heard some very moving stories.”
Ontario has two provincial oral health programs and services for adults, some of which can also be accessed by children.
Adults over 18 receiving Ontario Works benefits are eligible for some basic dental coverage, mostly discretionary care for emergencies, in addition to children of adults receiving Ontario Works benefits.
Adults receiving income support through the Ontario Disability Support Program, as well as eligible family members such as a spouse or child under the age of 18, can receive basic dental coverage as well.
Children 17 years old and under from low-income households can turn to the Healthy Smiles Ontario program, a government-funded dental program that provides free preventive, routine, and emergency dental services.
But VDO director Lisa Kerr says there is a serious gap in Ontario’s healthcare system that fails to address adults and seniors with pain and infections from dental-related issues.
Adding government-funded dental programming for low-income adults, however, would be highly complex, and dentists will have to be consulted and compensated fairly or many will not be willing or able to participate, says Kerr.
“If the money being spent on hospital visits for dental emergencies could be redirected to provide preventative care like checkups and cleanings, as well as emergency care for low income adults, there is no question that our tax dollars would be being used more effectively,” Kerr said.
VDO has patients ranging from 18 to 90. Last year alone, VDO provided 1,105 appointments to patients, amounting to $415,011 in free dental care provided by volunteer dentists.
In 2015 there were almost 61,000 visits to hospitals by people with dental problems, according to the health ministry, costing the province approximately $31 million.
Visit dental-outreach.com/contact.html for information.
*This story has been updated to correct the fact that the 472 dental-related visits to the Haliburton Highlands Hospital happened in 2012, not 2015.
ALEX COOP is a reporter for The Highlander.