Niagara seniors dental program ‘step in right direction’

Thousands of seniors in Niagara might soon benefit from a new program providing them with dental care they otherwise couldn’t afford, despite concerns that too many seniors will be excluded.

Niagara Region’s health and social services committee members voted to support a new Ontario Seniors Dental Care Program for the region, which will provide free dental care to Ontario residents 65 and over, with an annual income of less than $19,300 for a single person or $32,300 for a couple — well below the poverty line as defined by Statistics Canada.

The Region’s dental program manager, Gloria Morris, said the program would be fully supported by the provincial government, with $1.6 million for the remainder of this budget year and nearly $2.14 million annually after that.

St. Catharines Coun. Brian Heit called the program good news, “but it’s not great news.”

He said the income most seniors receive would exceed the cutoff to access the program.

“I can’t see how many seniors could even get the help that’s needed,” he said.

While Morris said the province expects to serve about 3,789 seniors in Niagara, Heit called it “shocking” that many seniors are receiving so little income.

“It’s great that the province is doing this, but this number is way too low, I think.”

Associate medical officer of health Dr. Andrea Feller agreed.

“This is not as much a seniors dental program as it is a sort of safety net for those that we really need … to get into some sort of main stream care … We’re hoping for many more than the 3,700 that have been estimated in terms of utilization,” she said.

“It’s very little money, although we are glad to have this as compared to nothing,” she added.

Lincoln Coun. Rob Foster called the program “completely supportable.”

However, he said part-time workers without benefits “are being completely missed” by the program.

“There’s an awful lot of people who have to make choices between whether they’re going to pay rent or buy food, versus going to have dental work,” Foster said. “And dental work as we all know long term is a really critical part of one’s personal health.”

Niagara Dental Health Coalition chair Lori Kleinsmith agreed the program falls short of meeting full needs in the community, but called it “a step in the right direction.”

She read letters from Niagara seniors who can’t afford dental care.

“My husband and I have not been to the dentist in years because we cannot afford it,” Kleinsmith said reading one of the letters. “We can barely pay our regular bills, let alone for an expensive visit to the dentist.”

Kleinsmith, who works as a health promoter at Bridges Community Health Centre in Port Colborne, said there are very limited options to provide to people who contact her looking for help, but the introduction of the Ontario seniors dental care program “will truly make a difference in the lives of thousands of low-income seniors living in Niagara.”

Tara Galitz, primary care director for Centre de sante communautaire, said oral health is a common concern for many of clients who use services offered at the francophone health centre in Welland.

“More often than not, many of our increasingly aging clients often come in to see a nurse, physician or mental health worker because they can no longer deal with the oral health-related challenges that make it very difficult to live and to deal with the stigma and physical pain associated with that, that are actually the root cause of what they’re coming in for,” Galitz said.

Morris said most of the 17.2 full-time equivalent dental service providers to be hired through the program will be stationed at community health centres. Only 3.4 will work in public health department offices.

She said the program will be set up at Quest, Centre de sante and Niagara Falls community health centres.

While supporting the initiative, committee members voted to continue advocating for increased provincial funding for the program.

Morris said that advocacy has already begun.

She said all 35 health units across Ontario “reacted very strongly to the numbers” when the program was announced by the province.

“The ministry has heard us loud and clear,” she said.

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