Poor people face dental dilemma

People who are homeless or on seniors' pension or welfare can have a difficult time getting dental care, says the retired dentist who deals with all of them at the New Life Mission's clinic.

Dr. Holly Schweiger said he hears stories every day about people who can't find a dentist to fix their teeth because they have no money, or those same people face long waits to get care or are treated badly.

"We have 83 dentists in town and only about two or three will even look at those of the marginalized society," he said Wednesday.

He was commenting on the story of Ryan Boulter, a 40-year-old man who is from B.C., but moved away for business for several years before health problems brought him back.

Boulter had surgery to remove a huge tumour from his back and hip in February and he still walks with a cane. He, his wife and children live in the basement suite of his sister's Kamloops home.

During the summer, one of Boulter's back bottom molars broke almost in half. He was in excruciating pain.

Unemployed, without a dental plan and without a local dentist, Boulter turned to his mother's dentist.

Boulter said he was told he had to wait seven weeks for an appointment; he felt the pain should have made his case an emergency.

He waited it out, and on Sept. 30, he saw his mother's dentist, who he described as rough and disrespectful as he put in a temporary filling.

"He said 'People like you, you're not worth my time,'" Boulter said.

Five hours later, the temporary filling fell out. Boulter still has the piece.

When he told his sister Tara Bradshaw about what happened, she called the same dentist's office and asked about an appointment for her mother. She said she was told there were openings available the next day.

"I was angry," she said.

Boulter phoned and found another dentist to fix his tooth. She had to pull it.

"She was excellent. I left feeling like I was treated like a human being."

Boulter is writing the B.C. College of Dental Surgeons about the first dentist, particularly the long wait and the way he was treated.

Schweiger said he hears stories like Boulter's every day.

"If the patient is in pain, it's an emergency."

Dentists can refuse treatment, to a point. But if someone is in immediate danger, they are obligated to treat them or send them to the hospital, he said.

The B.C. College of Dental Surgeons' code of ethics defines a dental emergency if it involves uncontrolled bleeding or swelling, traumatic injury or uncontrolled severe pain.

"Dentists have an obligation to consult with and provide emergency dental care to members of the public, or make a reasonable attempt to provide alternative arrangements in their absence," it states.

Schweiger, who is retired, said if someone is on social assistance, government will cover up to a certain amount.

"If someone comes in on welfare, we accept what welfare pays, which is about two-thirds our regular fee. Most other dental offices say you have to pay the difference."

The other problem is, becoming a dentist is expensive, as is setting up a practice and paying for staff and rent and equipment.

"It costs $50,000 a year to become a dentist now, and there are six years of it," Schweiger said.

"And then it costs half a million to open a practice."

Even the New Life Mission clinic is not free. Wages and overhead costs have to be paid. But if someone is desperate, Schweiger will pull a tooth or put in a filling under emergency funding.

He estimated his pro bono dental work adds up to $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

He's written MP Cathy McLeod about lobbying for changes, particularly for seniors on pensions who have no dental coverage.

"There is no quick fix. Not unless the government sets up clinics where people can go," he said.

"I am retired from private practice. I enjoy helping people and giving back to the community a little bit that supported me and my family for years and years and years."

Bob Hughes, executive director of the AIDS Society of Kamloops, said people who are working at minimum wage jobs without any dental plan don't even get the little coverage that welfare recipients do.

"It's a difficult dilemma. If you're the working poor, which is a big part of the population, and you're trying to raise kids and you've got dental care, there's no coverage."

He took a client who had used drugs for years to his own dentist, who told Hughes the work the man required was far beyond what income assistance would pay.

"He didn't want to do the work because it was going to cost him a pile of cash," said Hughes.

He'd like to see dentists get tax credit for donating their services.

"There needs to be an incentive, a rallying cry, by someone in the dental field who looks at providing some level of support to those marginalized or poor."

myoung@kamloopsnews.ca

© Copyright 2018 Kamloops Daily News