Dental treatment inaccessible for many low-income earners

Juliet Gray, special care dentist at the Canterbury District Health Board, with patient Stephen Mudgway, who uses a wheelchair and has multiple sclerosis.

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Juliet Gray, special care dentist at the Canterbury District Health Board, with patient Stephen Mudgway, who uses a wheelchair and has multiple sclerosis.

Christchurch wheelchair user Stephen Mudgway says even if he could afford it, access to dental care is ‘’literally and financially impossible’’.

Mudgway has multiple sclerosis and has needed to use a wheelchair for the last 10 years. He’s one of many New Zealander’s struggling to get adequate dental care – a problem health professionals say is leading to a resurgence in intensive care admissions and third-world oral health problems.

”You go to a normal dentist and you’re lucky to get in the door, even ones which say they are wheelchair friendly have a lip and you can’t get an electric wheelchair over those,” Mudgway said.

”You’re stuck where you can go, if you go into the hospital the rooms are big and the chair is movable so usually they just do it while I am sitting in my wheelchair.”

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Mudgway said his teeth were ‘’starting to crumble’’.

There are three dental surgeries near his home, but even if he could ”get in the door” he could not afford it.

The 61-year-old was in full-time hospital care five years ago, but he fought hard to live independently.

”I was nearly a full hoist in and out of bed,” he said. ”I now live in a flat all by myself, so I have managed to do a lot of things to help myself but the system is so broken I’ve almost been punished for that.”

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Mudgway offered the example of contacting Work and Income seeking assistance for dental care.

”After I paid rent I had $20 for food … I could have a tooth rotting in my head and there is no way I could access help from Work and Income yet the CDHB (Canterbury District Health Board) were happy to pay $85,000 for me to be in hospital care,” he said.

”I may come across as if I’m a bit bitter, but I’ve got what I got and I live with it.”

Labour is promising to more than triple the emergency grant for low income people desperately needing dental treatment from $300 to $1000.

But Tavia Moore, an advocate with the Christchurch Beneficiary Advisory Services, said she was not certain it would help those who most needed it.

She had seen clients suffering extreme dental pain, but they still could not meet the emergency grand threshold.

‘’Constantly being told it is not an emergency and doesn’t need to be done while they are sitting there in agony … it’s just cruel,’’ she said.

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CDHB special care dentist Juliet Gray said case managers should not have to make healthcare decisions.

Gray said she regularly treated people who had become so desperate for pain relief they tried to dig out the tooth using screwdrivers and knives. Others delayed treatment and were admitted to intensive care with life-threatening infections.

‘’It is just completely out of line and no-one talks about it because the people with the biggest problem don’t have a voice.’’

Hospital dental services only had to provide care for low income people ‘’as capacity allows’’.

Such services were supposed to be a “last resort”, but were increasingly unable to treat people on low incomes because they were so busy seeing people with complex medical problems due to the region’s growing elderly population, she said.

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