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Hamilton board of health could push for universal dental care

A large number of seniors and low-income Hamiltonians don't have access to dental care, and one councillor wants to change that.

Many Hamiltonians don't have dental coverage, especially seniors and the working poor

Sona Regonda gets a free teeth cleaning from Victoria Gentili and Margaret Callon at a low-cost dental clinic in Hamilton last year. At least one Hamilton politician wants to push the province to implement universal dental care. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A large number of seniors and low-income Hamiltonians don't have access to dental care, and one councillor wants that to change.

Coun. Sam Merulla will bring a motion forward "ASAP" asking the province for universal dental care.

He wants a system that guarantees a minimum standard of care that is taxpayer funded and available to everyone, much like Canada's health care system.

"There should be a standard of care that is universal and that is built into provincial legislation and paid for out of general revenues," said Merulla, who is drafting the motion with Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health.

"I don't think people would feel reluctant to pay into a dental care program in the province."

Merulla's comments came after a presentation from Glenda McArthur, director of Hamilton public health's clinical and preventive services division.

The highest number of children with dental problems live in the lower city, particularly wards 2 and 3, McArthur said. As a result, the city will relocate its Public Health Services Dental Clinic from the Mountain to the lower city in 2014.

Other findings:

  • Hamilton children from low-income families have 2.5 times more tooth decay than children from high-income families.
  • During school screenings in 2012, public health staff found that 1,587 Hamilton children needed urgent dental treatment.
  • Fewer than half of Hamiltonians with low incomes have dental insurance, compared to 75.8 per cent of middle-income and 79.9 per cent of high-income residents.
  • Only 39 per cent of Hamilton seniors have dental insurance.
  • Ontario spends $5.67 per resident on dental care, the lowest in Canada. By comparison, Quebec spends $20.59, New Brunswick (the next lowest) with $13.73 and Saskatchewan with $43.91. The national average is $19.54.

Universal dental care is "long overdue," particularly for the working poor, who often have less dental coverage than people on social assistance, Merulla said.

"We should have had a comprehensive dental care program in Ontario and Canada years ago," he said.

A basic standard of care would make sense, Richardson said.

While many consider dental care to be separate from health care, poor oral health can cause cancers of the mouth, soft tissue injuries, and mouth infections, and is linked to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer disease and other ailments, McArthur said in her presentation.

When it comes to health coverage, "we have to put the mouth back in the body," Richardson said.

Paying with tax dollars

At the same time, she knows money is tight.

"I know the challenges the provinces are having in terms of funding, and health funding in particular, so they're trying to decide where to best put their funds," she said.

"What I'd like is to have thoughtful consideration of it and to have the programs in place better consolidated."

Merulla wasn't the only councillor to speak in favour of universal dental care at Monday's board of health meeting.

"It's really hard to believe we've lived with the universal health care system for decades now and preventative maintenance as part of an oral health program is still not part of it," Coun. Chad Collins said.

Merulla also plans to introduce a motion at an upcoming board of health meeting regarding access to prescription drugs.