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Towering dental costs take their toll on everyday New Zealanders

Georgia O'Connor-Harding,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Mar 2023, 5:00am
Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Towering dental costs take their toll on everyday New Zealanders

Georgia O'Connor-Harding,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Mar 2023, 5:00am

Towering costs are having a detrimental impact on New Zealanders unable to afford dental healthcare.

A significant proportion - including those in high paying jobs - are bearing the consequences of avoiding the dentist, as unaffordability takes its toll.

From toothaches, to broken teeth and abscesses - stories have flooded into the New Zealand Herald of the painful health conditions families are putting up with long-term.

It comes as a report last year found 40 per cent of New Zealanders - including 50 percent of Māori and Pasifika people - have an unmet need for dental care due to cost.

Tooth be told commissioned by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists further showed about a quarter of a million New Zealand adults have had teeth removed due to decay.

Christchurch mother Nikita was struggling with postnatal depression following her first and second child.

For the now mother of three, self-care at the time wasn’t a high priority, rather just getting through every day was.

“The last thing on my mind was remembering to brush my teeth every day, let alone sometimes I didn’t want to get out of bed because of the way I was feeling. Because of it, my teeth were absolutely wrecked”.

Nikita was left with bleeding gums, plaque build-up, fillings falling out, and multiple holes in her teeth.

She went to the dentist two years ago due to an abscess under her gums as her wisdom teeth tried to cut through.

She said she waited three weeks for an emergency appointment while in “excruciating” pain and with a swollen face.

“It was the worst part of it because obviously you already feel bad about having post-natal depression and feeling horrible with yourself, let alone feeling embarrassed that you allowed your teeth to get that bad”.

While she said she was initially able to pay $280 for the initial appointment through a Q Card - she could not afford the two follow-ups.

Fast-forward two years, she still cannot afford to go back and is continuing to face pain and sensitivity.

“In terms of everyday dental care, I believe it should be free… they talk about how important teeth hygiene is for everyday life and everyday health.

Yet if it’s supposedly that important, why are they not prioritizing that?”

Another full-time working Christchurch Mum agrees the cost is “completely unrealistic” for everyday families.

She said there are other living costs in need of prioritisation - including mortgage, groceries, bills, kids activities and school.

“You avoid preventative care, and then when something does go wrong, it’s so unaffordable”.

While she wouldn’t consider herself on a low-income job, she points out if she can’t afford to prioritise going, the cost must have a significant impact on lower paid families.

“It just must be completely out of reach really. Even when they are in pain.”

The 38-year-old has had as many as four teeth pulled out due to infection, and has since been paying ongoing costs since contributing $4000 to an ACC-related dental implant.

A wide-range of ages have been impacted across the board, as annual inflation remains high.

In January, Stats NZ reported the consumer’s price index increased 7.2 percent in the 12 months to December 2022.

But Otago University Students’ Association is concerned the expense isn’t the only issue causing students to put off their dental healthcare check-ups.

Finance and Strategy Officer Emily Fau-Goodwin said bad experiences have also affected some students.

Some told her while they felt their teeth were in good health, their dentist pushed them into unnecessary dental work.

“As an international student myself, speaking to other international students as well, they prefer to just get their dental work done when they go home again, rather than having it done in New Zealand.”

Fau-Goodwin said one student was told they may need pay up to $9000 for a dental bridging medical procedure, due to an upgrade in technology.

She said that same student went back to their home country only to be informed unless they wanted to spend more money, they would not need an upgrade for quite a few years.

Fau-Goodwin believes the price, plus these kinds of experiences puts people off and impacts their health longer term.

In Dunedin, students provide oral healthcare services through Otago University’s Faculty of Dentistry at a cost generally below private practice due to treatment taking longer and requiring more visits.

The faculty’s dean Professor Paul Cooper said services are in high demand due to the cost of private practices, along with waiting lists of patients to be treated post Covid-19.

For New Zealand’s elderly community, healthcare in general is a big issue, Age Concern’s chief executive Karen Billings-Jensen said.

“One of the big things is poor teeth or poor dentures can actually have a huge impact on healthy eating and the ability to easily get the good foods that actually help keep us healthy.”

Billings-Jensen said for some older people travel can be a barrier on top of cost.

While she acknowledges there’s some discounts for SuperGold or Community Services Card holders, expense is still a barrier.

She said the longer communities go on without seeking dental healthcare help, the more destructive it can be to their overall health.

Should free dental healthcare be pushed as an election issue?

Before former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, she told Newsroom while everyone would love free dental healthcare in principle, it’s massively expensive.

In a report to NewsHub back in 2020, the Ministry of Health estimated that the cost of extending free dental care to adults would tally up to $648 million per annum.

Previously being aware of the Government’s budget demands, the New Zealand Dental Association proposed a stepwise approach to target the most in need first.

This finally came into fruition during Budget 2022 – and dental grants for low-income families increased from $300 to $1000.

The association’s president, Katie Ayers said that funding hadn’t increased since the early 90s.

“We saw that as a really big win. Still just a step, but a really big step we hadn’t seen for decades”.

The next proposed the Government increase funding for 18 to 24-year-old low-income adults.

“Dental care is free up to the age of 18 and then once people turn 18 often, they don’t go to the dentist for quite a while after that,” Dr Ayers said.

She highlights it would particularly support Maori and Pasifika, young parents, and have a flow on effect for their children as well.

“We haven’t heard the Government talk about doing that at this stage, so that would probably be the thing we would push for next”.

Other New Zealanders appear to be on the same page when it comes to pushing free dental healthcare.

Nikita said in an ideal world free dental healthcare would be “fantastic”, but even having it partially funded for more New Zealanders would be a step forward.

Another Christchurch parent agrees it needs to be prioritised - especially as oral health is connected to other physical health.

But Fau- Goodwin said whether it should be an election issue is a difficult question to answer -although it could do with more Government intervention and improvement.

“It’s just too expensive to fund dental care, but even subsidise it, I think would be helpful.”

But Billings-Jensen said the issue needs to be looked at broadly, and a subsidy isn’t the only answer.


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