'Nobody likes having a toothache': Still no dental in some N.W.T. communities

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said community facilities need to bring dentistry online sooner because it has been a year since those services were paused due to COVID-19.

MLAs say federal and N.W.T. governments need urgent solutions for dentistry in communities

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson says people are being sent home with Tylenol or penicillin but need dental treatment. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

It's been one year since residents in Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour and Paulatuk, N.W.T., saw a dentist visit their communities, and Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson is urging the health authority to fast track the resumption of services.

"Nobody likes having a toothache," said Jacobson in the Legislative Assembly last week

Jacobson said it's taking too long to bring health centres into compliance with COVID-19 measures. 

"I have been getting calls at 4:30 in the morning.… People are needing dental assistance, and there's nothing happening," he said. 

"They go to the health centre. They are given Tylenol and penicillin to help them with the pain.... We need to get this sorted out." 

Jacobson asked for quicker progress on building upgrades and air exchangers to speed up the resumption of services.

In December, the chief public health officer approved six smaller communities to resume dental services, but many in Jacobson's region are going without, he said. 

"I'd like a commitment from the minister to make a targeted effort to improve facilities immediately so that ... our small communities in the territory could have dental teams visiting and doing dental work and procedures in the community instead of flying them out."

"It's not a 10-year project," he said. 

Department working with Indigenous Services

Numerous safety concerns that go beyond COVID-19, such as infection control, must be addressed before dental services can resume, Damien Healy, a spokesperson for the health department, said in an email. 

Timeline of dentistry services during pandemic 

March 2020: Indigenous Services Canada tells the N.W.T. government it will suspend all non-urgent dental travel due to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

June 2020: N.W.T. government relaxes its rules to allow dental services to resume services in health centres that could meet COVID-19 guidelines.

August 2020: Indigenous Services Canada reaffirms its commitment to continue medical travel for Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) recipients to access non-urgent care if dental services were still suspended in their communities.

October 2020: Territorial government issues COVID-19 standards to manage the risk of infection and airborne contaminants.

December 2020: Territorial government announces services to resume in Aklavik, Fort Providence, Fort Resolution, Fort Simpson, Norman Wells and Sambaa K'e, where the facilities are newer and meet air exchange requirements. 

A working group with officials from the department, regional health authorities, and Indigenous Services Canada, who contract with dentists, meet on a weekly basis and have developed a plan to resume dental services in communities, he said.

The working group has identified seven more communities where services can resume, including Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok, depending on whether the facilities are updated, the email states.

Necessary upgrades include adding supplemental air purifiers, upgrading or replacing dental equipment, servicing HVAC systems, and meeting requirements for personal protective equipment, Healy said. 

Health Minister Julie Green said in the Legislative Assembly last week that her department will assess the facilities by the end of June and develop a plan to resume services.

"Ulukhaktok has two dental visits a year, so at this point, they would have missed two. My hope is that that's all they are going to miss," she said. 

Green also said that Indigenous Services Canada were responsible for initially suspending services. The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority then requested that services stay offline until they could resolve safety concerns, she said.

But in an email to CBC, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said "the decision to pause these services, and when to resume them, is made by the Government of Northwest Territories." 

In communities that still lack dental services, the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program will pay to transport recipients to access dental services in the interim, they wrote.

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler says the criteria for NIHB are 'stringent' and that the health minister and her department should meet with the federal government so that people can access services more easily. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said that while NIHB pays 100 per cent for eligible recipients, there are "really stringent" criteria for accessing medical travel. 

Semmler asked if Green and the department will reach out to NIHB and develop a process to quickly access out-of-community dental services. 

Green said the requirements are established by the program, but said she will reach out to the Inuvik NIHB office to discuss travel restrictions and criteria.