Unequal treatment: First Nations woman denied medical coverage readily available to non-Aboriginals

A woman from Alberta has been denied coverage for dental implants to fill gaps in her mouth resulting from a cleft palate, a denial her doctor says is the result of her being Indigenous.

Doctor says Indigenous children in Alberta being singled out, putting them at 'an extreme disadvantage'

Summer Dawn White Eagle, 20, is still waiting for a response from Alberta's Indigenous Relations minister as to why her prosthodontist hasn't been paid for two dental implants that she required. (Bryan Labby/CBC News)

UPDATE: Alberta Health says it has reached an "understanding" with Health Canada to reimburse a Calgary dentist who had been denied payment for work he'd done on a First Nations patient. 

Find out more here.

A woman from Alberta has been denied coverage for dental implants to fill gaps in her mouth resulting from a cleft palate, a denial her doctor says is the result of her being Indigenous. 

"I think everyone deserves the same treatment no matter what," said Summer Dawn White Eagle, who was born with a cleft lip and palate more than 20 years ago on the Siksika First Nation east of Calgary.

Children born with cleft palates in Alberta are referred to the Pediatric Cleft Palate Clinic at either the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary or the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton.

Summer Dawn White Eagle was born with a cleft palate. After more than a dozen medical procedures she is nearing the end of what she calls "a long journey." (South family)

Almost all of the costs for dental procedures are covered under the Alberta Cleft Palate Dental Indemnity Program, established in 1974 and believed to be the first publicly funded program of its kind in Canada.

To be eligible for coverage you must be under 24 and a resident of Alberta.

'All other children are getting covered'

White Eagle's prosthodontist says he's never encountered a problem getting compensated for dental implants for his non-Aboriginal patients. 

"All the other children are getting covered by Alberta Health," said Lim. "It doesn't matter whether these other kids, whatever race or religion they are, as long as they're a child, they get covered."

The fees for First Nations Albertans are supposed to be split equally between the federal and provincial governments, but the federal program that covers the costs has denied payment to Lim.

Dr. Terry Lim is a prosthodontist who has a number of cleft palate patients in Calgary. He's frustrated he hasn't been paid for the work he's done with one of his First Nations patients. He says aboriginal children are being put at an 'extreme disadvantage.' (Bryan Labby/CBC News)

According to the Health Canada website, "all dentally related costs associated with the treatment of a functionally handicapping malocclusion, such as cleft palate, are covered under the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) Program." However, it says implants are excluded from coverage, and that exclusion can't be appealed.

Multiple surgeries

"I think everyone deserves the same treatment no matter what," White Eagle said.

Her mother agrees.

"All children deserve to have the treatment," said Anita South.

"If you have to go through life with big gaping holes in your mouth, that does something to how someone feels about themselves and how society feels about you."

Anita South, is Summer Dawn's foster mother. She's frustrated a federal program is denying payment to Dr. Terry Lim, a Calgary prosthodontist. (Bryan Labby/CBC News)

'Unusual situation'

In a statement to CBC News, Health Canada said it has contacted Dr. Lim and is trying to find a solution.

"This case represents an unusual situation and Health Canada is actively working with its partners to determine a fair and timely solution," the statement read.

"We have been in contact with the claimant's prosthodontist to discuss the case in detail. Furthermore, we have reached out to our counterparts in the Government of Alberta in an effort to resolve the situation."

Lim submitted the claim in April, 2016 and is still owed several thousand dollars for the implants.

"I think there's a hole in the system that unfortunately puts First Nations people at an extreme disadvantage," he said. 

White Eagle's journey has included more than 10 surgeries and procedures, including two jaw surgeries, bone and skin grafts to fill in her upper lip and palate. She's also had surgeries to her eyes, nose and ears.  

Advocating for the doctor

She now finds herself advocating for Lim to try and get his payment. 

"It's not fair, it's not right," said White Eagle of the situation. 

She wrote to Alberta's minister of Indigenous Relations in January, outlining the procedures she's gone through and pointed out that she, like all other cleft palate patients, is entitled to the treatment and the people who provide it should be paid.

She hasn't heard back.

Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan's office didn't respond to a request for comment, but instead referred the matter to Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.

"We appreciate Dr. Lim bringing this situation to the Alberta government's attention. Alberta Health staff have been in contact with the Cleft Palate program at Alberta Health Services and the federal Non-Insured Health Benefits program. The department will be working with AHS and federal government toward a solution for this patient and her family," read Hoffman's statement.

Lim says he will cover the costs of the implants for White Eagle, but fears some practitioners will opt out of treating Aboriginal children because they won't get paid.

More work needed

South says Summer Dawn may require more plastic surgery for her upper lip and her daughter is having hearing problems that will need to be checked.   

She says it pains her to see that Dr. Lim will not get paid for the work he's done to help Summer Dawn.

"He's done an amazing job with Summer; he has a heart for these kids, he needs to be paid," said South. 

White Eagle, who her mother describes as a "miracle child" for getting to where she is, is studying to become a professional make-up artist and is expected to graduate from her Vancouver-based program next month.

A copy of a letter sent to Dr. Terry Lim, a Calgary prosthodontist, who was denied payment for two implants for Summer Dawn White Eagle, who was born with a cleft palate.
  • Bryan Labby is an investigative reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.