Chronic pain and hospital visits: Is it time for free dental care?

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Monday, 4 March 2019, 6:39AM
Waitematā DHB has revealed it wants a "comprehensive dental service for all New Zealanders". Photo / Getty Images

Desperate people are queuing at hospital pain clinics because they can't afford the dentist - and some health bosses are now backing free dental care.

Waitematā DHB has revealed it wants a "comprehensive dental service for all New Zealanders".

Chief executive Dr Dale Bramley said the Ministry of Health is already considering how dental care could be included in the public health service, and has urged DHB's to support it.

Victoria University political lecturer Bryce Edwards told Kate Hawkesby this is a significant issue, that would make a "huge difference to New Zealanders if implemented".

However, he said it would cost the Government a large amount of money, so there is a lot of pressure on Health Minister David Clark.

"It's been building over the last couple of years and it's from people that have seen that there are a lot of people who can't afford to go to dentists and therefore their situations are getting worse and they are turning up at hospitals with all sorts of horrible conditions."

"In other parts of the world, dental healthcare is part of the health system and in New Zealand, it's sort of an anomaly that it's not."

Edwards said it is a delicate political position for the Government to be in.

"This is a really expensive policy of the Government makes dental care free or even subsidised so it is going to depend on how much pressure contines."

"It does seem to be building so I do think it will be an election issue."

However, he said they have a few options to minimise the cost of the policy.

"Do they just make it a slightly subsided, more affordable healthcare, or are they going to mame it more universal in the same way that hospital visits are free?"

"I suspect that because the Government don't really want to put up taxes, they don't want to spend more, they are probably going to end up with a compromise."

Any move to provide more subsidised or free dental care would carry a huge cost. Currently, about $198 million a year is spent on oral health services, with most covering universal services for children and teenagers.

Adults must pay the full cost, and bills can run into the thousands of dollars.

Kiwis without enough money live in chronic pain that affects work, quality of life, and mental and wider health. Gum disease increases the risk of heart disease, and poor oral health increases the chances of bacterial infection in the bloodstream.

About one in three New Zealanders have untreated tooth decay, the last comprehensive oral health survey in 2009 found. Almost half of adults had avoided routine dental treatment in the previous year, because of cost.

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