Ontario should stop siphoning money from dental fund for poor
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – The province of Ontario has been quietly taking money out of a dental fund for the poor and putting it into sport promotion programs. It should stop.
Apr 01 2013
With a cynical sleight of hand, the province of Ontario is stripping millions of dollars from a program designed to provide dental care for the working poor and pumping it into sports promotion programs. It’s like robbing Peter to give to PR.
It’s a sad outcome for the $45-million dental fund for low-income families. The Liberal government announced the fund as part of its anti-poverty strategy after a 2007 Star investigation exposed the suffering of working-poor adults who couldn’t afford dental care.
One man went blind from an infection that began in his abscessed tooth and another went through such pain from his rotten teeth that he had all but four removed, only to endure more agony. At the time, Toronto Public Health’s Dr. Hazel Stewart rallied the government to give help to the poor, decrying their lack of care. “People don’t realize that your teeth are vital organs,” Stewart said. “If your finger was rotting away, you wouldn’t just sit there with it.”
Teeth are not covered under the Canada Health Act so the costs of dental care are either paid out-of-pocket, covered by employer health insurance or provided to those on social assistance. For low-income families with no coverage, the cost is prohibitive.
After the health ministry began its work with the dental fund, it excluded impoverished adults, investing everything in low-income kids. One existing emergency dental care program (Children in Need of Treatment) expanded coverage to kids up to age 17 (from age 14). A year later a new preventative children’s program, called Healthy Smiles Ontario, started with a goal of treating 130,000 youth by 2013.
Unfortunately for those who were supposed to benefit, the ministry designed the programs so that most of them didn’t qualify. It put the funds into plans that didn’t use as much of the money as expected, such as emergency dental care, or had such rigid criteria that many children who needed treatment were turned away.
As a result, desperately needed dental care money went unspent. And instead of changing the rules to make sure more kids got help, the ministry quietly diverted the money to other areas.
It took $15.4 million from the emergency dental care program and shuffled it into health promotion programs for the development of sports, healthy communities and antismoking campaigns. Worthy projects — but when one in three Ontario adults has no dental benefits, the money should be going to those with the greatest need. The ministry bureaucrats who pulled off this stealthy heist should give their heads a shake.
None of this was known until Jacquie Maund, of the Association of Ontario Health Centres, obtained documents through a freedom of information request to find out how the $45-million fund was being spent.
Here’s what the documents show: In 2009-10, $7.4 million of unspent funds in the children’s emergency dental program was “primarily used to offset pressures from Sport and Athlete Development programs.” In 2010-11, another $7 million went to “Healthy communities and Smoke-Free Ontario programs.” And in 2011-12, $1 million — from a rapidly dwindling fund — was sent to help out sports.
Another $4 million from the preventative program was also cut. Unfortunately for the poor, it appears that the money isn’t coming back. The documents show that dental funding has dropped from a promised $45 million a year to $33 million.
As Stewart, Toronto’s director of dental and oral health services, says, the money has been “siphoned off to do sports promotion programs even though people are still languishing with the issue of access to care.” It’s a shame to watch a precious program disappear — especially when it could change the lives of so many Ontarians.
Dental care is not just about cosmetics. Lack of affordable care can lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and debilitating infections (some can actually cause blindness). Bad dental care also blocks economic success due to the rather obvious fact that most employers don’t hire applicants with rotten teeth.
The Association of Ontario Health Centres is now asking the province’s budget committee to reinvest in dental care and loosen those inflexible rules. Right now, the preventative care program won’t accept any child whose parents have a net income (after basic deductions) of more than $20,000. Kids whose parents’ incomes are barely above that line are repeatedly turned away.
As well, the Ontario Oral Health Alliance is collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures asking the government to give some dental coverage for working-poor adults. Unlike low-income adults on social assistance who get some emergency care, poor working adults get nothing.
Jason Jones was one of those workers. At the age of 25, he had to quit his labourer’s job after getting all but four of his rotting teeth removed because the pain was so intense. After his story appeared in the Star in 2007, a Markham dentist offered to give Jones dentures and his life was quite literally transformed. He is now a certified boilermaker and is raising a family of four young children.
It was Jones’ story, along with his before and after photographs, that prompted the Ontario government to create the fund. Dental care can change lives, and save them, too.
That is why Health Minister Deb Matthews must stop the bureaucrats who are bleeding money from the dental fund. Make the programs work for the people who need them the most.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2013/04/01/ontario_should_stop_siphoning_money_from_dental_fund_for_poor_editorial.html >