Laura Cattari knows more than anyone what's at stake when city council votes Wednesday on discretionary benefits. If it makes the suggested cuts, she could lose her teeth.
The downtown resident receives Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits, and relies on the discretionary benefits program. She has periodontal disease, and she needs cleanings at least twice a year or her teeth could loosen and eventually fall out.
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Under the proposed program cuts, dental care for social assistance recipients would be capped at $260 per year for emergency dental surgery. This makes Cattari nervous.
"If I could save for (the cleanings) in my budget, I would," she said. "But there is no way over six months that I could even clear the last cleaning to do another."
Cattari is one of several presenters scheduled for Wednesday's general issues committee meeting. At the meeting, councillors will grapple with program cuts they say started with reduced funding from the province.
A staff report presented last week proposes keeping funeral service and orthotics as is, but reducing dental benefits and utility arrears. It also suggests drastically chopping the number of low-cost transit passes available for people on social assistance, and eliminating access to adult day programs.
Councillors are also scheduled to examine a drastically reduced Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefits program, which helps people get and stay in housing.
If Hamilton kept the status quo with its discretionary benefits program, it would result in a $3.7-million shortfall in 2013. The Community Start Up cuts would cost $4.3 million. Funding both programs would require increasing taxes by 1 per cent.
But Cattari, vice-chair of the social assistance reform group for the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, wants councillors to know the true cost of not funding those programs.
She has fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and chronic pain and fatigue. Her medications cause her mouth to be excessively dry, and that triggered the periodontal issues.
Cattari nearly lost several molars when she was diagnosed six years ago. When she didn't get regular cleaning, "I could have literally pulled out my teeth with my hands."
Basic dental benefits are cheaper than dentures, she said. They are cheaper than treating someone with heart disease, which is a greater risk for people with untreated periodontal disease.
"In my mind, if you're really going for cost savings, this is not the way to go," she said. "Long term, this will cause more issues that will cost the city."
Coun. Brian McHattie hopes the cuts aren't necessary. On Wednesday, the committee will look at a potential solution that could fund the shortfall in the short term.
Hamilton not alone
It will take council to the budget process in 2013, McHattie said. At that point, it will look at other options to keep the program going.
"There is a lot of interest by councillors to find a solution to counteract the provincial cuts that occurred with the two programs," he said. "We'll see how the majority votes."
Hamilton is not the only community to look at cutting dental services to make up for provincial shortfalls, said Dr. Arthur Worth, president of the Ontario Dental Association (ODA).
The situation "has left many vulnerable Ontarians in limbo," Worth said.
The ODA suggested streamlining about a dozen dental programs to save money, Worth said.
Hope for a solution
"Oral health is an integral part of overall health," he said. "The ODA has continually advocated that the government of Ontario properly fund these programs."
As for Cattari's case, "we're always concerned when we hear something like that," Worth said. "All I can tell you is our member dentists continue to treat these patients whenever possible."
Cattari hopes a solution is found.
"I don't want to lose my teeth in my early forties," she said. "Having a mouthful of missing teeth, I don't care how nice people are, there is a stigma."
And in that scenario, "there really is no cost savings to anyone."