Dentists see decay in kids' oral health program

Nova Scotia's dental association wants the Health Department to overhaul the children's oral health program, which it says is no longer effective.

Association president says she sees regular evidence program is ineffective and inefficient

Dr. Erin Hennessy is a dentist in Wolfville and president of the Nova Scotia Dental Association. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's dentists say that — like a bad tooth — it's time for the children's oral health program to be pulled and replaced.

Health Department officials are in talks with members of the Nova Scotia Dental Association regarding ways to improve the program, which right now provides basic dental care for kids up to age 14.

The former NDP government promised to expand the program to include young people up to age 17, but the Liberals put the brakes on those plans in 2014 following concerns from the dental association that the program wasn't working as well as it should.

A third of kids have dental decay

Dr. Erin Hennessy, president of the dental association and a dentist in Wolfville, said the concern is that the limited funds available for the program — about $7 million — aren't being used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The association isn't looking for any additional funding, but rather better use of existing resources. Hennessy pointed to stats that show 36 per cent of kids who start school by age six have some amount of dental decay and an average of 30 per cent of day surgery operating room time is used for dental procedures.

"We'd argue that this program really isn't working efficiently," she said. "We're seeing how it's causing kids to lose time at school, we're seeing that kids aren't eating as well and that kids aren't sleeping as well."

'Needs to be used more efficiently'

Right now the program offers basic dental services for annual checkups, some X-rays, 15-minute preventative services such as polishing, counselling or instruction, and basic restorations and extractions.

What Hennessy wants to see is expanded services for those who need them most in an effort to keep kids out of emergency rooms and operating rooms. That includes more preventative work.

"We're saying, 'Let's develop a new program that doesn't need more money, it just needs to be used more efficiently.'"

Trying to strike a balance

Health Minister Randy Delorey said it's too soon to say whether the program will eventually expand to include more ages, or instead shift to increase focus on the population that needs the most help.

A briefing note for the minister, which CBC received after a freedom of information request, discussed the concept of a means test for providing coverage. It notes dentists support the move "as it allows them to increase billing via private payment sources (at higher rates)."

Delorey said the government knows there are people who have some level of coverage and some who don't. The question becomes what is the best use of resources: providing some coverage for everyone, or enhanced coverage for those who need it most.

No timeline for a decision

The minister said he is aware the viewpoint of the dentists is "inconsistent with previous governments' direction and policy," but he said the priority will be providing the best service for available resources.

Nova Scotia has some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Delorey said he sees the proposal from the dentists as a nod toward the hardships some people are facing in general and when it comes to accessing care.

The minister said he's asked his staff to begin looking at the issue, but said it's too soon to say when a decision might come or whether it will include public consultation.

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Carolyn Ray

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