Dentist who helps poor says NZ's dental model needs 'complete change'

An increasing number of New Zealanders are getting into more debt for emergency dental care, and one dentist says the Government’s dental grants simply aren’t enough. 

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Dr Assil Russell says the Government’s dental grants of up to $300 weren’t enough. Source: Breakfast

The last national dentist survey showed 50 per cent of New Zealanders put off going to the dentist because they couldn't afford it - even for a check-up. With a lack of regular preventative checks, by the time they’re forced to see the dentist, they require urgent emergency care. 

Hamilton-based dentist Dr Assil Russell founded Revive a Smile charity in 2011 for people without homes, victims of domestic violence, refugees, migrants, low-income adults and the elderly. 

In the past 10 years, the number of people applying for emergency grants increased every year, she told Breakfast.

This year, she said the charity was “inundated” with people who couldn’t afford treatment who were in “tremendous pain” from infections and swelling in their mouth. 

One 35-year-old woman Russell treated was a single mother of three. She is currently unemployed, is moving between state houses, and is trying to get further training to find a job. But, she’s been turned away from jobs because of her teeth. 

Russell had to move nine severely-infected teeth from the woman and is expecting to give her root canal treatment and dentures. 

“I think that’s the problem. Dentistry is often overlooked - it’s not seen as important as perhaps any other diseases in the body. But ... the mouth is connected to the rest of your body, especially to your general and mental health,” she said. 

Russell said the cost of such a treatment in the private sector would be upwards of $4000. 

“The $4000 price is actually not expensive because of the amount of regulation in New Zealand’s industry and the costs of consumables and overheads has really gone up.”

Last year, the Government spent $41 million on emergency dental grants - double the amount that was spent in 2016. This year’s figures are expected to be higher.

Emergency dental grants of up to $300 are available to those with low incomes. The Labour Government promised to increase that cap to $1000 in Budget 2021, but it had not done so. 

Greens social development spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said they were "disappointed that with an already slow pace in welfare reform, this is one of the many promises that Labour has languished on". 

"Extending it so that it covers a thousand dollars would be a start for providing more dental care for people.

"Ultimately we should be looking at expanding dental care for more people in New Zealand so that people are not just going for emergency extractions."

Hamilton-based dentist Dr Assil Russell. Source: 1 NEWS

Russell said $300 was not enough for the urgent care a lot of people needed, or to help prevent serious dental issues. 

She said it was “heartbreaking” that the grant had not increased since the mid-1990s. 

“The model completely needs to change. Prevention is very important. People need to go in early so that when they have a problem, we can catch it early - it’s much cheaper to treat when it’s caught early,” she added.

“If they’re leaving it too long, it’s going to spread to other teeth and that’s why we’re seeing people that come in and they need nine extractions and dentures.”