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When mechanic Joseph Murphy of Labrador City retired, becoming a senior pensioner brought a stark reality of life without dental coverage.
“Right now, I am only living on what you would call a very low income. … You can’t look at a dentist now unless you have $1,000 in your hand,” said Murphy, who before the election call Friday — when The Telegram contacted random voters — expressed the desire for politicians to deliver a platform on dental and eyeglass coverage for seniors.
On Monday, the NDP launched a platform on enhanced dental coverage, beginning with seniors.
“Hopefully, whoever forms government will do something like that,” Murphy said when asked what he thought of the promise.
“The NDP haven’t formed a government yet and they are far from it.”
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Murphy said there’s no reason dental services can’t be prioritized by the province.
“They give out money for everything else,” he said.
“But they can’t look after their own seniors.”
St. John’s denturist Joan Andrews said the provincial government needs to take another look at making dental and denturist services available to those falling through the cracks, as the government revamped the program so only seniors in long-term care were eligible.
“That leaves a big gaping hole in the middle,” Andrews said, adding that seniors without generous pensions or stacks of RRSPs are struggling to pay for heat, electricity and property taxes, let alone obtain dental care or dentures.
“There’s never an increase in the seniors' pension — 25 cents? That’s not going to get you new teeth,” Andrews said.
“A lot of denturists are giving them a break, but you can only do so much. You’re running a business as well.”
Not only are seniors without private dental coverage left in a hard situation, young people who aren’t on income support but don’t make much money are also suffering because of the dental coverage gap, she said.
With the opioid drug crisis, Andrews said, she’s seeing more young patients who lost their teeth through drug abuse and the side effects of the methadone treatment program.
She suggested if the province revamps the adult basic dental program, it will require certain qualifying criteria so it’s not just a free-for-all, but too many people are suffering now not to enhance it.
Not only does dental health or the ability to have good dentures and chew food properly affect physical health, it can have an affect on mental health if people are too self-conscious to go out, Andrews said.
“A lot of seniors are suffering. … Nobody should feel less,” she said.
“A lot of denturists are giving them a break, but you can only do so much. You’re running a business as well.” — St. John's denturist Joan Andrews
Anthony Patey, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Dental Association, said the basic adult dental program — chopped in 2016 due to fiscal restraint — wasn’t perfect, but dentists would like to see something at least similar to what it was before, if not enhanced.
“Some people wouldn’t go to the dentist if they didn’t have some sort of support,” Patey said.
“It was something. It wasn’t the best, but it was there.”
He said the government would also have to be sensible about fees, because if it will only pay X dollars for a service such as a filling, dentists have to use materials that may not last as long, and that means patients served by the program get a different level of service.
The adult basic dental program began in 2012, but the then Progressive Conservative government soon realized how expensive it was. The government budgeted $6.7 million for the program in 2012; a year later, it cost $21 million due to unforeseen demand.
NDP Leader Alison Coffin pledged Monday that if her party were in power, it would ensure seniors in Newfoundland and Labrador have dental services they need.
“Seniors can barely afford to stay in their homes because necessities like heat and food are so expensive. They just don’t have any more money to cover the cost of visiting a dentist or denturist. No one should be left suffering in terrible pain or risk getting an infection because they don’t have enough money,” Coffin said. “For years, Liberal and Conservative governments have made cuts to programs that provided dental care services to people who needed them. Our seniors deserve better.”
Coffin said Liberals made cuts to the adult dental program in 2016, and now crucial services such as extractions, fillings and dentures are only available to seniors receiving the guaranteed income supplement or living in long-term care homes. The Liberals’ program also only covers seniors for certain procedures on a timeline decided by the government, Coffin said.
“In 2019, the Liberals spent $2.2 million on the adult dental program to help 5,695 adults access dental services. They literally gave former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin more money than they spent to help adults in this province get the dental services they needed. It’s just not right,” said Coffin, who pledged to consult with dental professionals to craft a workable program if she were premier.
Seniors can barely afford to stay in their homes because necessities are so expensive. They just don't have anything...Posted by Alison Coffin on Monday, January 18, 2021
Asked how the NDP would pay for that, given the province is cash-strapped, Coffin said the way in which the budget is allocated would, under an NDP government, be based on priority needs for people.
“We are going to make those choices that we stand for Newfundlanders and Labradorians, (that their needs) are addressed first,” Coffin said.
“We’ve only seen the estimates documents — that’s only estimates, that’s essentially an intention of where we want to be. We haven’t seen the auditor general’s accounts of that, so we don’t know how much programs have not been fully spent and we don’t know exactly where the money in this past year has gone. (If) we make the right choices, we can support our programs and services.”
In response to the NDP’s platform pitch, The Telegram asked the Liberals — which was the governing party at Friday’s election call — whether they would reinstate the previous adult basic dental program. The answer was that the government is working to make things better
“Our Liberal government is committed to providing quality health care for people across the province, recognizing dental health is important, and we continue to work with stakeholders to improve services as required,” the statement said.