The cost of dental care in New Zealand: Jim Anderton's 'unfinished project'

New Zealanders struggling to afford dental care is a reoccurring topic for health advocates and politicians, as the number of children hospitalised for preventable oral issues increases. 

Cash-strapped residents of the Hawke's Bay town are keen to take up the volunteer dentists' services. Source: 1 NEWS

The topic of free dental care was even mentioned at former Deputy PM Jim Anderton's funeral and called his "unfinished project". 

At the end of 2017, calls for more accessible dental care arose when former Prime Minister Helen Clark voiced her worry over the affordability of dental care in New Zealand. 

Son Chris Anderton spoke passionately at the former deputy PM's funeral. Source: 1 NEWS

"I hear very concerning reports of those who end up with very serious dental problems because they cannot afford regular checkups and small problems end up as big ones. Surely #WINZ could be more helpful? A stitch in time saves nine," she tweeted.

These calls were echoed by a leading dental expert who said dental health is being treated like a luxury.

Otago University Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent says a survey found about half NZ's population put off necessary dental treatment because of the cost. Source: 1 NEWS

Otago University's Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent said the last national dental survey found that about half of New Zealand's population had put off dental treatment they knew they needed because of the cost.

Dr Broadbent said the average hourly rate for a dentist in New Zealand is $460 and with the minimum wage of $15.75, "it's basically a full week's work to earn enough money to get one hour with a dentist".

"I believe that dentistry is a case study of what happens when we commercialise healthcare. Dental problems cause pain, embarrassment, worry just like any other heath problem, yet we set dentistry apart from other health problems," he said.

"It's a problem to treat dental health like it's a luxury. It's on you to sort it out, even if you can't afford it."

Helen Clark has urged the government to make dental care fully funded, but Dr Assil Russel says that would be a hard task. Source: Breakfast

On TVNZ1's Breakfast in November, founder of charity Revive a Smile Dr Assil Russel suggested a government initiative to raise the age of free dental care, or to allow WINZ to fund more dental care for individuals. 

"The government does need to step up."

She said there had been a lot of preventative measures introduced, but New Zealand was lacking in terms of access to dental care and making it affordable to people who need it most.

Dr Russel said she sees life threatening infections and people who have lived with dental problems for years due to being unable to afford care.

She would like to see the free dental visits from 18 to 20-21, saying "that would be a really good start", instead of fully funding dental care.  

Jim Anderton's advocacy for free dental care

The likes of former PM Jim Bolger and current politicians were present at Anderton, a long serving politician's funeral. Source: 1 NEWS

The topic of accessible New Zealand dental care was brought up at Mr Anterton's funeral last week.

Mr Anderton was well-known as an advocate for free dental care in New Zealand. His son Chris Anderton made a mention of the plan as he spoke passionately about his father.

"Your moral compass was strong and true. May you use that to find your way to the great, Progressive executive council in the sky, with your heroes Norm Kirk and Michael Joesph Savage, help us guide Jacinda and her Labour-led government towards completing one of his unfinished projects, free dental care."

Mr Anderton died in Christchurch on January 6, aged 79.

National wants increased fluorisation 

National's Jonathan Coleman said the affordability of dental care is an issue for many New Zealanders.

"[It] becomes a particular issue for older New Zealanders," he said. "That's why we introduced legislation designed to increase the coverage of fluoridation across New Zealand."

He said it was the "single most effective measure" in ensuring oral health, "and it's important that the Parliament now passes it".

"The Government needs to ensure the remaining stages of that Bill progress through the House as quickly as possible if it's serious about improving oral health."

Minister of Health Dr David Clark told 1 NEWS he was concerned that "an increasing number of children require hospital treatment for preventable dental problems", however there were no immediate plans to alter the age of free dental care above age 17.

"We know that deprivation negatively impacts on children's health, including their dental health. I want to see dental care become more accessible and affordable over time."

Dr Clark acknowledged Mr Anderton's "life of public service, and his interest in improving the dental health of New Zealanders". 

Cash-strapped residents of the Hawke's Bay town are keen to take up the volunteer dentists' services. Source: 1 NEWS

On Tuesday, 1 NEWS reported on Hawke's Bay iwi Ngati Pahauwera who have partnered with Lumino The Dentists to give free dental care to cash-strapped residents of Wairoa over a two week period each year.

This year the initiative has seen unprecedented demand.

"We are totally oversubscribed. I think over 100 people are already booked for this week we need to keep it quiet that we are coming or we are inundated," Tony Dey of Lumino The Dentists said. 

Some families in Hawke's Bay are struggling to afford dental care. Source: 1 NEWS

Chairperson of Ngati Pahauwera Toro Waaka suggested a subsidy for solo parents and elderly who he said were "struggling" to pay for dental care. 

"If you're on a low income there’s no way you can get that type of care."