New Brunswick dentists say they've been trying to negotiate a new contract with the province for more than a year. (CBC)

People living on provincial government assistance in New Brunswick are wondering how they'll afford to get their teeth fixed since the province's current contract with the New Brunswick Dental Society expires Saturday.

As of next week, dentists will be demanding payment up front.

Contract talks broke down this month when the province demanded that dentists start collecting cash co-payments from assistance clients.

Dentists say they will stop treating assistance clients — of which there are about 51,000 in N.B. — unless they get paid up front either by the patient or their case worker.

The New Brunswick Dental Society has been trying to negotiate a new contract with the provincial government for more than a year.

A tentative agreement reached in August would have increased their payments to 80 per cent of regular fees, but the government rejected that deal.

Dentists in New Brunswick get the lowest rates in the Atlantic provinces for treating people on assistance.

They can bill for less than 70 per cent of their normal fees.

Dentists say they can't afford that kind of subsidy — they wanted a raise.

Pay the difference

Instead the province wants them to lower that to 56 per cent, and get assistance clients to pay the difference.

Kent Orlando, president of New Brunswick Dental Society, said dentists will try to continue services to social development clients next week, but they may face delays.

"We would either expect the patients to pay for the service up front and get reimbursed from social development on their own, or get an estimate from the dentist on the cost of treatment and then get payment from case workers or social development," Orlando said.

"It's really up to them to determine how they're going to arrange for payment."

Stephanie Doiron said she's in constant pain from 10 cavities and a broken tooth. Her dentist said she needs $2,500 worth of dental work.

As a single mother on income assistance, she could get up to $800 a year of dental work covered by the province.

"The pain in my mouth is almost as bad as giving birth," Doiron said.

But Doiron, who has a new daughter, may have to come up with all the money herself.

"I'm nursing my daughter right now but I'd like to go back to work. You know, it's bad enough that I have a broken tooth but if all my teeth have to be pulled or something, I don't even want to smile," she said.

The province said it has a contingency plan but won't say what it is.