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Access to dental care lacking for seniors in Durham

Seniors now forced to look outside the region for affordable dental care

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

A Whitby woman is seeking answers to why she must drive 45 minutes into Northumberland County to receive subsidized dental care, a question that fits into a larger discussion surrounding the seemingly forgotten status of the mouth in Ontario’s public health care system.

Marilyn Curtis says she currently makes the 60 km-plus trek to Port Hope Community Health Centre, which offers geared-to-income dental care.

The fact there is no similar program in Durham Region has left her fuming, claiming

she searched high and low, contacting local dentist offices, service clubs and politicians to no avail.

“I have phoned everybody I can possibly think of, and nobody can give me an answer. I’ve been working on this for about a year, and nobody can give me an answer why we can’t have the same program as in Northumberland.”

Durham Region’s Health Department does not have a subsidized dental care program for seniors.

“Currently, the Oral Health division of Durham Region Health Department provides care for children zero to 18-years-old through the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Healthy Smiles Ontario (HSO) program. Under HSO, the health department provides a full range of dental treatment in our clinic and families are also able to access care for their children in the community paid through HSO,” a statement from the health department emailed to The Oshawa Express states.

The region received $1,432,400 in 2017 to facilitate the Healthy Smiles program.

The statement also notes while the Health Department pays claims for adults who are recipients of Ontario Works through Durham Region’s Department of Social Services,  seniors are not a group specified within the current Ontario Public Health Standards and, as such, the region doesn’t provide funding to provide specific care for seniors through public health.

Curtis is far from the only one in Durham asking questions, as the health department receives approximately 80 inquiries a month from seniors and low-income adults who are looking for assistance with accessing dental care.

Services offered in neighbouring municipalities vary.

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

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.

Joe Dickson, Liberal MPP for Ajax-Pickering, says once funding is doled out to municipalities for the Healthy Smiles Program, the ball is in their court as to what extra services they want to provide.

“It’s a choice and local municipalities make the decision for what is done for local residents,” Dickson says. However, he says a number of his staff have been advocating to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to consider creating a program in the model of Healthy Smiles for low-income seniors.

The Association of Ontario Health Centres estimates between two and three million Ontarians cannot afford dental care, and as 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.

Oshawa MPP Jennifer French says these visits usually only result in patients receiving pain medication because doctors are not trained to treat oral health conditions.

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 where Curtis receives her care, can cause not only self-esteem problems, but could also prevent people from finding gainful employment.

French told The Express the fact OHIP doesn’t cover dental care has always confused her.

“It’s definitely a source of frustration,” she says.

The NDP MPP says people with untreated oral problems are also susceptible to more serious conditions.

For example, if an abscessed tooth is left too long, there is potential the infection can spread to other areas, such as the sinus, the heart, or the brain, which could potentially cause someone to fall into a coma.

In her former career as a teacher, French says she was required to share information on the Healthy Smiles Ontario program, and for her, it was disheartening to see children and families who not only didn’t have dental benefits, but also didn’t qualify for publicly funded care.

“What a needless obstacle,” she says.

Although health care funding is a direct responsibility of the province, French says there needs to be collaboration from all levels of government to make dental care accessible and affordable for all Ontario residents.

“It has to be all hands on deck.”

Lorne Coe, MPP for Whitby-Oshawa, the riding Curtis resides in, agrees something needs to be done.

“Clearly, there is a need to raise the profile of oral health care for the frail and vulnerable elderly, and to improve the quality of care received by seniors across the province.”

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 from program to program.

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

The centre has not placed geographical restrictions on its program, as Lewis says patients come from across southern and central Ontario to access their services.

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

Requests for comment from Liberal MP Granville Anderson were not returned as of The Oshawa Express press deadline.