The future of a successful program to prevent cavities in kids at high-risk area schools is uncertain as the province merges its programs for children without dental insurance.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health’s free fluoride varnish program targets elementary schools where there are a lot of kids with urgent dental needs.
“What we’re trying to do is stop the cycle of kids having dental disease,” said Dr. Robert Hawkins, a dental consultant with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.
He calls the floruide varnish, “one of the best ways of preventing tooth decay” which can be painful for kids and expensive for their parents, especially those that do not have dental insurance.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health started funding the program in 2007 at Centre Peel Public School, in response to very high levels of tooth decay, particularly among the Low German Speaking Mennonite students.
It has since expanded to Brant Avenue, Priory Park, and Westwood public schools in Guelph as well as Princess Margaret, in Orangeville, Victoria Cross, in Mount Forest and Hyland Heights, in Shelburne, with additional funding from the province.
According to a recent report from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, the number of kids with urgent and non-urgent dental needs at Centre Peel school has fallen from 30 per cent to five per cent with the implementation of the program.
But despite that success, Hawkins said it’s not clear if it will continue.
The province is in the process of consolidating its different dental financial assistance programs.
Currently they are spread out among six different provincial programs, including Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works.
“Right now it’s uncertain about what will be funded in the future, regarding public health’s role as far as oral health services are concerned,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins hopes the government will recognize the importance of these type of preventative oral health programs, which he said save money in the long run because they stop cavities before they become root canals.
Fluoride varnish doesn’t replace regular checkups but it may be the only kind of dental care some kids are getting.
“We don’t want to see this type of program be dropped and to see decay levels return to the rates that they were before we started,” said Hawkins.
Mair Gault, principal at Brant Avenue Public School in Guelph, would like to see the program continue for all children, not just ones whose parents don’t have insurance.
“I would hate to see as a cost-saving measure they just decide, only if you meet this criteria you’re going to go to the library for your fluoride now,” she said.
“They cannot set it up to be a stigma issue.”
She said a lot of the families rely on public transportation to get to dental appointments, even if they do have insurance, and may not make it to the dentist even if they can afford it.
“We need to put up less obstacles. This program removes a lot of the obstacles that are in place to do preventative work on dental health,” she said.
A similar fluoride treatment program is provided by the Region of Waterloo Public Health department at four schools in the area.
David Jensen, a spokesperson for the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, did not respond to specific questions from the Mercury about the future of the local fluoride varnish programs.
“The Ontario government intends to implement the Low Income Dental Integration commitment in a way that ensures that children and youth that are currently eligible to receive services under publicly funded dental programs and/or benefits that will be integrated continue to have access in the future program,” he wrote in an emailed response.
“This will include a continued role for public health units to deliver preventive services,” he wrote, adding the integration of the programs is intended to streamline administration and delivery of services.
Despite the services that exist there are still many people who don’t qualify and are left without access to dental care.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health’s recent report indicates only about 62 per cent of Canadians have private dental insurance and about 17 per cent of Canadians have avoided going to the dentist because of how much it costs.
“There is a gap of people that might have insurance but they have a low-paying job and they just can’t afford to access it, or they don’t qualify for the programs because they just make a little too much,” said Hawkins.
He said it’s about more than just teeth.
“If you’re in constant pain you don’t want to open your mouth and it’s really going to impair your ability to learn and to get on with your life.”