Publicly-funded dental services for seniors few and far between

By Dave Flaherty/Active Senior’s Digest

Dental treatment is likely the most accessed form of health care that is not covered by OHIP.

The Association of Ontario Health Centres (AOHC) estimates between two and three million Ontarians cannot afford dental care, and as a result, are turning to hospitals and their family doctors when pain becomes too much to bear.

A study released by the association states in 2014 there were almost 61,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms and 222,000 visits to physicians for oral health problems, resulting in $38 million in costs to the province’s health care system.

In 1998, the provincial government created six publicly funded programs designed to offer affordable dental care, which were amalgamated into the current Healthy Smiles Ontario program in 2016. This program is available to only a limited range of patients, mostly children in lower-income families.

Most seniors, other than those receiving Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) income assistance, do not qualify for the Healthy Smiles program.

The Ontario government has pledged to create a similar program for adults by 2025 but Jacquie Maund, policy and government relations lead for AOHC, says there needs to be “faster action.”

“We would really say this is a public health issue. It’s an issue when a large number of residents in our communities cannot afford dental services,” Maund says.

AOHC is one of a number of organizations who have joined the Ontario Oral Health Alliance (OOHA), calling on the government to expand services sooner than promised.

The OOHA has been circulating a petition on the issue since early 2016, and Maund says so far they have met with more than 40 MPPs.

“We’ve had some response. We’ve met with the NDP and PC parties and are hoping to speak with the Liberals soon,” she says.

Some municipalities in Ontario offer subsidized or free of charge dental programs for seniors, although they vary. The following are some of the options offered in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

City of Toronto
Free dental service is offered to eligible seniors over 65. The program covers most emergency and non-emergency procedures.

York Region and Durham Region
York and Durham Regions don’t currently offer services specifically for seniors.

Peel Region
Peel offers free dental service for eligible seniors over 65, however, it only covers basic treatment such as cleanings, fillings and denture work.

Offers a program that can provide up to $150
for treatment for pain-causing conditions, however, this is funded strictly by donations from the community.

City of Kawartha Lakes
Community Care City of Kawartha Lakes offers a dental clinic for low-income seniors and those who do not have dental insurance.

Northhumberland County
The Port Hope Community Health Centre offers subsidized treatment for seniors.

Without access to treatment, patients often only have the option of having a tooth pulled, which according to Christanne Lewis, the director of special programs at the Port Hope Community Health Centre dental clinic can cause not only self-esteem problems but could also prevent people from finding gainful employment.

According to Lewis, the subsidized dental program at the centre, which offers qualified patients a discount of 30 per cent, does not receive any provincial funding.

“We are very lucky to have two dentists at our centre,” she says.

While the program, established four years ago, has been successful, Lewis admits almost every year when budget discussions begin, its future is always in question.

Such programs are rare across the province, and according to Lewis, models vary across the board.

“There are quite a few who have been given funding for infrastructure, but not operations, so the facilities sit unused,” she says.

“It’s important to shine a light on this. The mouth has been forgotten.”

Maund says while the ultimate endgame is to have OHIP cover dental services, she believes extending low-income programs is a plausible starting point.

“We are very practical, and we have put together a proposal where we are calling on the provincial government and the opposition parties to make a commitment to take immediate action.”

She says it is imperative any program includes partnerships between public health units, community health centres and private dental clinics.

“We want access for low-income people to dental program. We know not all private dental clinics will accept people in these programs.”

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