Petition calls for public funding for low income adult dental coverage
By Jenn Watt
Published Dec. 13, 2016
Very little data exists on the dental health of the adult population in Haliburton County. In fact, there is little data on adult dental health available broken down by region, which makes pinpointing the needs of the local community tricky.
“The health unit has statistics on rates of tooth decay in local children, based on its dental screening program in local schools,” says Anna Rusak, oral health promoter at the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, “However, there is not a lot of information the health unit collects on the oral health of adults in its region. That makes comparing the state of adult oral health between geographical regions and in urban versus rural areas difficult.”
However, by looking at national and provincial statistics, the local health unit says there is evidence to support expanding provincial dental programs to include low-income adults and seniors. They’ve teamed up with the Ontario Oral Health Alliance and Northumberland Oral Health Coalition to ask the province to make dental assistance available to low-income adults and seniors within two years.
According to the Canadian Health Measures Survey conducted between 2007 and 2009 from about 6,000 Canadians, cost is a factor in decisions about dental health for many.
Their finding say that about a third of Canadians don’t have dental insurance and that 17 per cent of those surveyed “avoided going to a dental professional in the last year because of the cost.”
A report done on dental care inequalities in Ontario using data from 2005 had similar findings, but noted a clear trend amongst those with less education and lower incomes and dental care.
“Most Ontarians (80 per cent) tend to visit a dentist for preventative purposes while one in five visits a dentist only in emergencies,” the Report on Access to Dental Care and Oral Health Inequalities in Ontario reads. “Those with lower income, less than secondary school graduation, the uninsured and those 65 years of age and older were more likely to visit only when an emergency occurs.”
Within the health unit’s catchment – Cobourg, Campbellford, Lindsay and Haliburton – 1,786 visits to the emergency room were made in 2012 to address dental problems, 472 of which were at HHHS.
For low-income Ontarians without insurance, the ER is often the only dental care they receive.
However, in Haliburton County there is additional service.
The Volunteer Dental Outreach Clinic has been helping low-income residents since 2011. Since that time, they have served 688 patients with more than 5,200 appointments and more than $1.8 million in dental work done. The care is free thanks to volunteers and donations.
VDO founder, board member and volunteer Lisa Kerr said amongst the adult population, the most common issues in this county are wisdom teeth pain and TMJ (jaw pain).
Over the last year, the addition of a new volunteer dentist to the roster has allowed them to see everyone with a 10 out of 10 pain level – “the pain that keeps them up at night and they can’t function and can’t work.”
And while the clinic was initially set up to handle the major dental work needed to help those who haven’t seen a dentist in years, it has morphed into a typical dental practice offering check ups, cleanings and advice on proper dental care.
The presence of a dental hygienist and dental assistant is crucial, Kerr said, in ensuring better overall health and preventing decay and other health issues from arising.
“It’s much more cost effective to deal with the preventative [measures]: have people checked before they need root canals, before they need surgery to have their teeth out and then replaced. It’s much better to have them in for their teeth cleaned regularly and have check ups done so they can take care of problems when they’re small and cost effective,” she said.
Clients at VDO help create a positive atmosphere for everyone, says Alana Bannister, clinical manager and dental assistant. “I love it. The people are so appreciative of what you do.”
Bannister started at VDO during a co-op placement and said she was originally afraid of dentists herself and decided to go into the profession to help others.
While Lisa Kerr and her husband, dentist Bill Kerr, are passionate about helping the community and ensuring good oral health care, they’re not sure whether provincially funded care for all low-income adults and seniors is the solution.
It seems unrealistic for the province to fund all of the low income residents, Bill Kerr said.
He said “it would be awesome in an ideal world,” but thought the cost to the province of such a plan would be “tremendous.”
He referenced other parts of the health care system that are still underfunded, wondering how they could also pay for enhanced dental care as well.
Lisa suggested there may be alternative policy solutions that could be explored.
MPP Laurie Scott’s office confirmed that they would be pleased to present the petition to the legislature when it is submitted.
The health unit argues that providing dental care for low-income adults would save the health system $31 million a year in avoided emergency room visits.
Petitions are available at the health unit and online by going to their website: hkpr.on.ca.